Just five years ago, Harlan County and Cooper were preparing for their first football season. Now, both young programs are just one win away from a trip to Bowling Green and the Class 5A state championship game.
Harlan County has quickly established itself as one of the top 5A programs in the state in just five short seasons.The Black Bears are 49-15 in school history with a pair of regional titles and three straight district titles.
“We have some good kids here, and they work hard. I have a good coaching staff that works hard. When you put all of that together it makes a good combination,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey.
Cooper hasn’t experienced as much success as Harlan County in its existence, but the Jaguars have steadily built one of northern Kentucky’s best programs.
“The biggest thing with us was just getting our kids to believe and buy into our program. The senior group we have is a pretty special group for us,” said Cooper coach Randy Borchers.
Cooper enters Friday’s contest coming off an impressive win over Franklin County. The Jaguars’ physical defense limited Franklin’s high-scoring offense to just 27 points, its lowest output of the season.
Borchers said his defense must limit big plays again this week.
“We need to force them to put the long drives together, and hope that we can create turnovers or mistakes and get them into second and third and long and force them to change up what they love to do,” he said.
To keep the Cooper defense off-balance, the Black Bears will continue to spread the ball around. Eleven players carried the ball for 372 yards and five touchdowns against Pulaski County in last week’s regional championship.
“We are going to line up in different things and see if we can find some weaknesses and go from there,” said Larkey. “I hope we can mix it up and try to look out there once the game gets started and see where we may think the holes are easier to block. I have a lot of plays, so I will have to get in the game and see what works best.”
While the Harlan County offense relies on a number of weapons, Cooper counts on a pair of senior standouts to carry most of the load. Dual-threat quarterback Tyler Morris is the leader of that group. The signal-caller has completed 87-of-173 passes 1,549 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, while adding 783 yards on the ground.
“Tyler does it all for us. He is throwing the ball well, but he has done just as well running the ball for us. The great thing with him is he is a pretty good scrambler. A lot of the running yards he has this year have come when he has gotten pressure,” said Borchers. “We know we are going to get a lot of pressure this week, and we are hoping he can make some plays with his feet.”
Morris is joined in the backfield by A.J. Collins, who leads the team with 1,641 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
“He is one of those guys that seems to get better as the game goes on. A lot of times he will take a two- or three-yard gain in the first quarter and that turns into a 10-yard gain in the fourth quarter. He is just a competitor,” Borchers said.
The 12-1 Jaguars have faced a tough schedule that includes several northern Kentucky powers. However, Borchers said his team hasn’t seen a team similar to Harlan County.
“We are going up against an offense and a defense that we have never really gone up against before. Those kids fly around. You can tell those kids have a ton of heart. We are going to have to play an almost perfect game to come out with a win this week,” he said. ‘“Coach Larkey has been around for a long time, and they are good at what they do. They have 10 or 11 guys that carry the ball every game. They are big up front, and they just pound at you and wear you down. It will be an experience for our kids.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on WYMT.