Stretching back to 1993, the Harlan Green Dragons have have made six trips to Pikeville for the playoffs. The Dragons’ season ended each time on the field at the W.C. Hambley Athletic Complex.
“Pikeville is a tough place for anybody to go and get a win,” Donahue said as he prepares for a 7:30 p.m. matchup Friday in the second round of the Class A playoffs. “Pikeville is a tradition-rich school, and they have another good football team this year.”
The chances that this could be the year Harlan would break its Pikeville postseason losing streak appeared astronomical a few weeks ago as the Dragons stumbled through a 2-8 regular season.
A surprisingly easy 46-6 win last week over visiting Allen Central in the opening round of the playoffs has changed the perspective somewhat.
Allen Central brought a 7-3 record into the Harlan game, including a 43-42 loss to Pikeville in the regular season. The Dragons’ convincing win over the Rebels didn’t go unnoticed in Pikeville.
“I think Harlan is a real good football team,” Pikeville coach Mike Copley said. “They are real physical and good up front, and their backs run real hard. I have the utmost respect for coach Donahue. He does a heck of a job, especially defensively. His kids play hard for him.”
Like Harlan, Pikeville (6-5) has not had a typical season. The Panthers struggled against non-district opponents early, falling to Corbin (23-15), Ashland Blazer (47-0), Lexington Catholic (52-27), Belfry (48-7) and Prestonsburg (41-0).
“I think our kids are going over there with a lot of confidence. I think they feel they have a chance in the game,” Donahue said. “It’s not an undertaking of ‘Wow, here we go again.’ I think these kids are ready to try and meet that challenge.”
After losing 15 seniors to graduation, Copley faced a rebuilding job in his first season as head coach after three years as an assistant.
“We’ve gotten much better,” Copley said. “You also have to look at the competition we play. We had a lot of injuries early, and we’re finally getting back healthy. With that brutal non-district schedule we play it took us a while to get our young kids lined out. I think we’re finally starting to click and get better.”
The Panthers bring a three-game winning streak into Friday’s game with victories over Paintsville and Phelps to clinch the District 8 title before opening the playoffs with a 48-0 rout of Jenkins.
“We came back with a new quarterback and a lot of new faces up front and a whole new linebacking corps,” Copley said. “Our constant was our defensive backs, our receivers and our running back. I consider Daniel Harmon to be one of the best running backs in the state, and Tyler Baker is a definite weapon at wide receiver. Lexington Catholic had to double team him. Other than that, we were fresh everywhere with freshmen and sophomores and a few juniors. It just took some playing time and early knocks and bangs to get on our feet.”
Harmon, a senior tailback, has carried the Pikeville offense through much of the season with 1,422 yards on 169 carries during the regular season with 21 touchdowns. Blake Branham has completed 35 of 65 passes for 683 yards with nine touchdowns, all to Baker, and four interceptions. Baker leads in receptions with 23 for 560 yards and nine touchdowns.
“The Harmon kid is an outstanding running back,” Donahue said. “He’s as good as you’ll see in these parts. He runs hard and runs fast. They are taught well up front, and they execute well. They do a lot of things to get the ball in his hands. They also have the threat of throwing the ball out to the Baker kid.”
Andrew Link, a junior tailback, has led the Harlan offense with 1,415 yards rushing. After being slowed the last two games of the regular season by a shoulder injury, Link bounced back against the Rebels to rush for 203 yards and touchdowns. Senior running back/receiver Allen Hensley had 167 yards rushing last week with four touchdowns.