Bears turn regret into redemption
SOMERSET — As the last refrains of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” from a slightly off key but enthusiastic group of Harlan County Black Bears, drifted into the November night sky, celebration for a surprisingly dominant 40-0 victory over Pulaski County, coach Eddie Creech talked of both regret and redemption.
“We talked about the power of regret before the game. You can learn from regret when provided with same opportunity again and you go back to that feeling (a 14-12 loss lost year at Pulaski County) in your belly. I think when we left here last year we had a feeling of regret, knowing we should have won the game,” Creech said. “I told them before we went on the field let’s leave this time with no regrets.”
Pulaski County’s loss was the first to a region opponent since 2012 when the Maroon lost in the regional finals at Harlan County. Pulaski County won four straight regional titles and made four straight trips to the 5A state finals, winning a state title in 2015 and finishing second three times.
“It’s huge,” Creech said, “but the thing I’m most happy about now is these kids getting a win. To beat the four-time region champ on the road is great, but the best thing is seeing them get this win.”
Harlan County (6-5), which will make a return trip to North Laurel on Friday for the second round of the playoffs, put together one of the most dominant performances in school history on Friday. Pulaski County (4-7) was held without a first down the entire game and limited to four yards of offense, including negative 15 yards rushing on 15 carries.
“Our defense was absolutely lights out,” Creech said. “It starts with those guys up front and the linebackers getting pressure. Our defensive backs didn’t let them get out of our sight at all. It was a total team effort.”
Starting quarterback Wiley Cain missed the game due to a shoulder injury suffered two weeks against Pulaski Southwestern. Freshman Kaleb Adams got the start and struggled before he was replaced by senior tight end Matt Hendricks behind center in the third quarter. Nothing, however, worked on this night for the Maroons.
Harlan County could do little wrong offensively, rolling up 307 yards on the ground after switching to a Wishbone set that dominated the line of scrimmage. Creech alternated five running backs and all contributed, led by Garry Henson with 96 yards on 14 carries, followed by Quinten Mickens with 81 yards on 11 carries, Caleb Carmical with 64 yards on 10 carries, Tyrese Simmons with 48 yards on five carries and Christian Hall with 44 yards on seven carries.
The HCHS offensive line of Noah Wood at center, Robert Burgan and Luke Holbrook at the guards, Andrew Baker and Jacob Ward at the tackles and Elisha Smallwood and Kyton Joseph at the tight ends played just as big a role.
“We kept that wrinkle in our back pocket leading up to the game,” Creech said. “I didn’t know we’d have to go it to that early, but with the field conditions and things we spotted early in the game, we just decided to line up and try to run right over the top of them. It starts with those guys up front, then the guys running north and south taking care of the football. (Quarterback) Colby Cochran has gone 24 straight quarters at quarterback without a turnover.”
A 26-yard pass from Cochran to Devon Rodrigues and a 26-yard run by Simmons highlighted the first HCHS drive, which stalled on the Pulaski County 15 and led to a 32-yard field goal by Marcus Kelly.
Pulaski County recovered a fumbled lateral on the Bears’ second drive, but the Harlan County got the ball back when Rodrigues picked off an Adams pass and returned it to the Maroons’ 40. Carmical and Henson took turns picking up first downs in a seven-play drive that ended with Carmical’s 7-yard run with 27.2 seconds left in the opening period. A high snap on the extra point try led to Kelly being tackled on a run around right end.
Hall recovered a fumble early in the second quarter to set up his 7-yard touchdown run with 9:56 left in the second quarter. Cochran faked a handoff and went in for the two-point conversion and a 17-0 lead.
Henson and Mickens each picked up first downs as the Bears drove 72 yards late in the half. Hall broke free around the right side for a 22-yard touchdown run with 52.4 seconds to play in the half. Kelly’s extra point pushed the lead to 26-0 at the half.
Henson broke free up the middle and then outran the Pulaski County secondary to the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown run on the Bears’ opening drive of the third quarter. Kelly’s extra point made the lead 33-0.
With Henson putting pressure on Hendricks, Simmons stepped in front of a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown with 6:57 left in third quarter, starting a running clock.
Harlan County 9 17 7 7 — 40
Pulaski County 0 0 0 0 — 0
HC — Kelly 32 field goal
HC — Carmical 7 run (run failed)
HC — Hall 7 run (Cochran run)
HC — Safety on run out of end zone
HC — Hall 22 run (Kelly kick)
HC — Henson 35 run (Kelly kick)
HC — Simmons 35 interception return (Kelly kick)
First downs 16 0
Rushes-yards 50-307 15-(-15)
Passing 66 23
Comp-Att-Int 1-3-0 5-18-3
Punts-Avg 0-0 3-43
Fumbles-Lost 3-1 2-1
Penalties-Yards 5-35 3-19
RUSHING—Harlan County, Henson 14-96, Mickens 11-81, Carmical 10-64, Simmons 5-48, Hall 7-44, Bailey 1-0, Harris 1-0, Casolari 1-(-26). Pulaski County, Ware 4-14, Cox 7-11, Hendrick 1-(-7), Adams 2-(-8), Butt 1-(-25).
PASSING—Harlan County, Cochran 1-3-026. Pulaski County, Adams 2-12-1-5, Hendricks 3-6-1-9.
RECEIVING—Harlan County, Rodrigues 1-26, Pulaski County, Loveless 3-12, Hendricks 1-2, Cox 1-0.