By John Middleton
2011 turned out to be a successful year for me in the prediction department. I correctly picked the Green Dragons final record at 5-4, although I admit not every game turned out the way I thought it would. I called for the Black Bears to go unbeaten in the regular season in 2011, and that pick looked good until the final half on Log Mountain. The Bears let a halftime lead slip away in the final two quarters to end my hopes for picking perfection. Let’s hope this year’s picks are as accurate as last season’s.
Harlan County (9-1)
The Black Bears start the season off with arguably their toughest opponent of the regular season as they face Morristown West in the Tribunal Bowl. The Trojans went 11-2 last season, including a victory over eventual 4A state champion Greeneville, before falling in the 5A quarterfinals. With this game on the road, it will be especially difficult for the Bears to escape with a win, but I think they will do just that.
The Bears will hit the road again the following week as they meet Tates Creek in the Fayette County Invitational. The 6A Commodores were just 3-8 last season in Kentucky’s largest class, and I don’t see them upsetting Harlan County this season.
The Bears return home in week three to take on Virginia power and five-time state champion Gate City. The Blue Devils kept the game close for one quarter last year before Harlan County began to pull away. I don’t expect this year’s game to be as lopsided as the Bears’ 48-7 victory last season, but I will take Harlan County to win by a couple of scores.
After a bye week, Harlan County will travel to Virginia to meet up with Lee High. The Generals have been no match for the Bears in recent seasons, and I see no reason why this year will be any different. I expect Harlan County to get up early in this one with the younger players seeing some time.
Scott Russell’s Knox Central Panthers will pose another stiff test in week five. The Panthers feature one of southeastern Kentucky’s top players in Jeffery Canady. With that said, I will pick the Bears by a couple of touchdowns.
George Rogers Clark will make the long trip to the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky the following week. Last year’s meeting was a shootout with the Bears pulling away late for a 57-36 win. Fortunately, the Cardinals won’t have standout Pokey Harris this season. Without Harris, I just don’t see George Rogers Clark being able to keep up this time.
Harlan County will open district play in week seven as it travels across Pine Mountain to rival Letcher Central. After several close contests, the Friends of Coal Bowl has gotten lopsided the past two years. I think the recent trend will continue, and Harlan County will open the district slate in impressive fashion.
The Bears will host a much improved Whitley County squad the next week with the district title possibly on the line. The Colonels were just 3-8 a season ago, but were much better than that record indicates. This game has the potential to be close for a while, but I think Harlan County’s defense will be able to slow bruising fullback Boston Bryant and the Bears improve to 8-0.
Harlan County will close out district play in week nine at Perry Central. The Commodores have featured one of the most explosive offenses in eastern Kentucky over the past few seasons. However, much of that firepower, including quarterback Kyle Huff is now gone. Perry will also be without standout linebacker Matt Robinson. I think those two factors will combine to make it a long night for the home team.
Harlan County will attempt to clear one final hurdle in the final week of the regular season as 3A power Bell County pays a visit. This year’s game could go either way, but until the Bears knock off Bell County I will be picking the Bobcats.
The Dragons open the 2012 season with a familiar opponent as Pikeville comes to town. The Panthers edged Harlan 21-14 in the first game last season before making a run all the way to the state semifinals. This year’s group will be without standout Randy Maynard. I think that will be enough for the Dragons to start off the year with an impressive win.
The Dragons will travel to Williamsburg the following week. Harlan downed the Yellow Jackets 41-22 in the regular season last year, but Williamsburg turned the tables in a 38-6 playoff victory. This will be an exciting game between two of the most explosive offenses in Class A football. However, I think Williamsburg will be too much, especially on the road. I will take the Jackets in a high-scoring affair.
A newcomer on the schedule will travel to Harlan the following week, as 2A contender Lexington Christian makes the trip. The Eagles advanced to the regional championship last season, despite fielding a lot of youth. If the Green Dragons can knock off the former 1A champion that would be a big accomplishment. However, I think Lexington Christian will win a competitive game.
The Dragons will host Middlesboro in week three. Harlan snapped a losing skid against the Jackets last season with a dramatic 48-42 overtime victory. Middlesboro isn’t the same mountain power they were years ago, but the Jackets are still a dangerous team. I think the loss of senior quarterback Chase Roars will too much to overcome, and Harlan will pick up its second straight victory over the once troublesome Jackets.
Harlan will travel to Lynn Camp in week four. This used to be a fierce 1A battle, but the Wildcats were the only winless team in 1A football last season. It will take at least a few years before Lynn Camp is ready to compete with the best teams in their class. I expect this one to be over by halftime.
Harlan will face another 2A foe the following week as Leslie County makes the short trip from Hyden. The Eagles shut down Harlan’s offense in a 12-6 victory last season, but 14 starters from that squad are now gone. This one could still be close, but I expect Harlan to improve to 4-2 with a win over Leslie.
The next week brings the biggest challenge of the season as Harlan travels to state champion Hazard. The Bulldogs have dominated this district as of late, but 2012 likely presents Harlan’s best opportunity to unseat them atop the standings. This could be a close game, but I will stick with Hazard at home.
Harlan returns home for the Battle of 119 the following week. Pineville has steadily improved as a program under coach Bart Elam, but they have been unable to get over the hump against the Green Dragons. I expect that trend to continue this year, with Harlan winning by a couple of scores.
Harlan will stay at home for the district finale as Jenkins makes the trip. The Cavaliers led early in last season’s contest before the Dragons finally came to life and pulled away for a 52-28 win. Jenkins is another program that has improved dramatically in the past few seasons, but they it will still be no match for Harlan.
Harlan will close the regular season at 3A power Corbin. The Redhounds are always solid under the direction of coach Steve Jewell, and this year will be no exception. This will be a competitive game, but I expect Corbin to hold on late.