Pulaski County coach John Hines played Brad Paisley’s “You’ll never leave Harlan alive” throughout the week as his team prepared for Friday’s regional championship game. Paisley’s haunting tune proved to be a prophetic one, as the Black Bears mauled the visiting Maroons 46-12 for their second regional title in the last three seasons.
Coming into Friday’s contest, Harlan County knew it had to slow the Pulaski passing attack and run the football effectively if the season was going to continue another week.
Check and check.
The Black Bears made Pulaski’s young quarterback, Riley Hall, look like a freshman, picking off the standout frosh four times, including two that were returned for a touchdown. The Bears’ defensive front didn’t allow Hall time to get comfortable at any point in the contest, with pressure throughout the night. Senior Aaron Caldwell led the pass rush with a pair of sacks.
On the offensive side, Harlan County did what it has all season — run the football. The Bears’ offensive front paved the way as 10 ball-carriers combined for 368 yards and five touchdowns on 58 carries. Junior Carson Whitehead led the ground game with 142 yards on 19 carries. Senior Jake Middleton had 93 yards on 14 carries, and junior Treyvon Long added 70 yards on eight runs.
“It was a tough game in spurts, but then we made some big plays. We had some interceptions and some big offensive plays. We got some big sacks and those types of things,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “I thought we might be able to win the game, but I didn’t think it would be in this fashion.”
After the offense was forced into a three-and-out to open the contest, the Harlan County defense set the tone with a pick six on the Maroons’ first possession. Cole Wilson intercepted a pass on third down and raced 35-yards for the score. Wilson kicked the extra point to make it 7-0 at the 8:21 mark.
Tucker Lewis ended Pulaski’s next drive, as he picked off a screen pass at the Maroons’ 37. Wilson applied the pressure on the play.
Harlan County quickly capitalized on the turnover. Whitehead carried the ball two times, including a 33-yard scoring run. Wilson’s extra point made it 14-0 with 7:05 left in the first quarter.
“We made some mistakes early. Obviously, you can’t turn the ball over in a game of this magnitude and set them up with a short field. That is exactly what happened. It was probably as bad a start as we could have gotten off to,” said Pulaski County coach John Hines. “We just made mistakes at a bad time. In a high profile game, we made some mistakes that got us in a deep hole.”
After forcing a punt, Harlan County pushed the lead to three scores when Zach Chitwood went in from 4-yards out to make it 20-0.
Senior Justin Goins set up the first Pulaski touchdown, as he returned the ensuing kickoff to the Harlan County 1. Aaron Smith scored on a 1-yard run up the middle on the next play. The extra point was blocked, and Harlan County led 20-6.
The Black Bears regained the momentum with a methodical drive on their next possession. Harlan County went 63 yards on eight plays, capped by a 5-yard touchdown run from Whitehead. Justin Napier ran in the two-point conversion to make it 28-6 with 9:57 left in the half.
Freshman George Gregory set the Maroons up near mid-field when he picked off a Scotty Bailey pass at Pulaski’s 41.
Two plays later, Hall connected with Alec Woolridge on a slant rout that went 54-yards for the score. The extra point was blocked and the score remained 28-12.
After the teams traded defensive stands, Harlan County regained control just before the half. The Bears put together a seven-play drive that covered 65 yards in 2:25. Middleton turned in the scoring play on a 27-yard run with 23 seconds remaining in the second quarter to make it 34-12.
“We just didn’t play very well,” Hines said. “They are a good football team, but the game tonight is not indicative of how good this team is. That is the frustrating part.”
Long put the game out of reach on the opening possession of the second half. The junior picked off a pass that went through the hands of Goins, then raced 57-yards down the home sideline for a score. The snap was fumbled on the two-point attempt, and Harlan County led 40-12.
“They were trying to go to Goins about every play to burn our slower guys out there that were trying to cover him,” Larkey said. “That little quarterback does a good job, but he couldn’t take the pressure that was coming from the outside tonight.”
Scotty Bailey closed the scoring with 7:20 left in the third quarter. The junior went in on a 1-yard quarterback sneak to cap a 12-play drive that chewed up much of the second half.
“That is the style they play. As long as they are able to have success with their power run game it plays right into their favor,” Hines said. “They keep the ball and control the clock. We just didn’t do a very good job of getting that stopped.”
Harlan County (11-2) will host Cooper in the Class 5A semifinals next week. The Jaguars defeated Franklin County 40-27 in the Region 3 Championship on Friday. Pulaski County closes the season at 9-4.