Harlan County currently sits in the driver’s seat for a district title and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but a loss at Perry Central could alter the Black Bears’ postseason path considerably. Harlan County could clinch the district’s top spot with a win over Perry Central, but a loss would likely create a three-way tie for first place and could mean the Bears will have to hit the road in the first round of the playoffs.
“They know they are going to have to lay it on the line and play their best game. They know it is a must win,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey.
For Perry Central coach Justin Haddix, a victory over the Bears would be a major milestone for his program.
“We want to win a district championship, and that is something we have a chance to do if we can get a win this week,” Haddix said. “Harlan County is going to be a tough opponent, and we have got our hands full.”
Harlan County has been dominant on the defensive side of the ball with routs of Letcher Central and Whitley County in the last two weeks. However, Perry Central will present a different challenge for the Bears. The Commodores feature a big-play offense, led by dual-threat quarterback Austin Pray. The senior signal-caller has completed 82 passes for 1,572 yards and 17 touchdowns, and also leads Perry with 909 yards rushing.
“He is the guy that gets us started. If he has a good game we are usually playing pretty good. He has got to take care of the football, especially this week,” Haddix said. “He has to be able to throw the ball and let our skill players make plays for him. Of course, it all starts up front. We have to give him time, and we have to make plays when we get the opportunity.”
The Bears’ defensive front has played in their opponents backfield for much of the past two weeks, and that trend will likely need to continue if Harlan County is to contain Pray.
“We are going to have to put pressure on him and force him to get off some bad passes. We can’t let him get into the open field on us,” Larkey said.
Pray isn’t the only playmaker on Perry Central’s offense. Senior Kegan Robinson provides powerful option at running back, while senior receiver Darrly Beatty is a threat whenever he touches the ball at receiver.
“It will probably be one of the most skilled and athletic offenses that I have seen all year. Austin Pray can run it and throw it. They have a strong running back back there in Robinson, then Beatty is real quick at wide receiver,” Larkey said. “Overall, they have just got a real good football team.”
Harlan County’s offensive game plan will likely come as no surprise. The Bears have rushed for over 350 yards in each of their last two meetings with the Commodores, and they will likely attempt to repeat that feat on Friday.
“I will be trying that to see if it works. I think we can run the ball on them. If not, we will go into a different set and do what we can,” Larkey said.
Matching Harlan County’s physicality will be a key for the Perry Central defense.
“We just have to come out and play tough mentally and physically, and make tackles when we get a chance to,” Haddix said. “I think it is just execution on our part. We have to slow them down.”
Junior Scotty Bailey will orchestrate the offense in his second start since taking over for the injured Austin Maggard. Bailey was solid in last week’s victory over Whitley County and should be more comfortable in his second start.
“We are working on Scotty at the quarterback position. We are trying to teach him and let him become more familiar with the running plays,” Larkey said. “We have a lot of plays. It is more than just handing off to the tailback up the middle sometimes. If that works, that is what we will do, but if that doesn’t there are things that he needs to do.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m