Harlan County has nearly taken the fun out of the Friends of Coal Bowl, as the Bears have outscored Letcher Central 99-20 in the last two seasons. Harlan County enters this season’s contest as a heavy favorite once again, but there will be no shortage of motivation for either team.
“That trophy means a lot to the team and the school. It’s also a district game, which is important,” said Harlan County coach Tom Larkey. “It doesn’t necessarily put you in the driver’s seat, but a win puts you in a good position in the district. Only two of us will be 2-0.”
“Our boys were talking about the Harlan County game as soon as I got hired,” added Letcher’s first-year coach Paul Rains. “People here look forward to this game. Usually, when it is a rivalry game you can throw the records out because both teams will show up ready to play.”
The host Cougars will feature a different offense this season, operating primarily in the spread formation out of the shotgun.
“It is different than what these players are used to doing,” Rains said. “We have a young quarterback and offensive line. We are slowly getting to where we need to be.”
To slow down Letcher’s passing attack, Larkey said the Bears must generate a pass rush.
“We have to try to get some pressure on the quarterback. We can’t give him all day to throw the football,” Larkey said.
While the Cougars will look to move the ball through the air, Harlan County will likely test the Cougars’ toughness on the ground.
“We have to try not to get manhandled too much up front. They are so physical on both sides of the ball up front. Once their backs get into the secondary they have enough speed and athleticism to make the big play,” Rains said. “It is a tough chore. Not many teams have been able to slow them down.”
One area the Bears must improve on is penalties. Harlan County was flagged 14 times for 125 yards against George Rogers Clark last week.
“We have to correct our mistakes and play good, hard football. We have to improve on the penalties. That can get you beat,” Larkey said.
Letcher Central enters Friday’s contest at just 1-5, with losses against Southwestern, Breathitt County, Franklin County, Montgomery County and Russell County.
“I think it has prepared us fairly well. The hardest part of the schedule that we have played is the fact that we are so young,” Rains said. “It is hard trying to keep up the mental side of things. Winning creates enthusiasm and losing creates the opposite, so it is hard to stay enthusiastic when you are an underdog each week.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.