HCHS, Harlan will play in football

A game many probably thought would never take place will become a reality on Aug. 23, 2019, when Harlan County will play host to Harlan in the First Priority Bowl at Coal Miners Memorial Stadium.

It will be the first game between two Harlan County high school teams since Oct. 26, 2007, when Cawood knocked off Cumberland 25-22 in the final season before consolidation brought together Cawood, Cumberland and Evarts high schools to form Harlan County High School.

Harlan and Harlan County haven’t played in the 10 years since HCHS opened and won’t play next fall in the second year of two-year contracts for all high school teams. When both head coaches started looking ahead to the 2019 and 2020 schedules, Harlan coach John Luttrell decided a matchup with the Bears made sense for his program, both from a competitive and financial standpoint, when his options for non-district opponents were limited.

A Class A school, Harlan played a 5A team last year at home against South Laurel and will travel to London this season. Harlan County is also a 5A team but will drop to 4A next season. Harlan County is in the middle of a two-year contract against Hazard, a 1A school, and will continue to play the Bulldogs in the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

“It was difficult for us to find games for 2019-20,” said Harlan coach John Luttrell. “The only offers I had for games came from Knox Central and South Laurel and Clay County. Harlan County offered us their bowl game, which will give us a generous stipend each year. The stipend will go a long way in helping us support our program financially. In addition, we will only have to travel five minutes down the road. I look forward to seeing how our kids compete with Harlan County.”

First Priority will provide the stipend for Harlan to play at HCHS in the opening games of the 2019 and 2020 (Aug. 21) seasons. Harlan County will also benefit financially from the games at home with large crowds expected. The Bears will have five games at home in 2019 and six at home in 2020, replacing what is usually a long road trip to start the season. The Bears will play at Ashland Blazer to open the 2018 season.

“Also, I think this will be great for football in our county. Our kids from both schools get along well, even in competition. I think it will bring a passion, excitement and a buzz here in the county that will benefit both schools and help develop a love for the game in younger athletes,” Luttrell said. “I have a great deal of respect for coach Creech and his staff and appreciate the opportunity to play in their bowl game.

“We are excited about the First Priority Bowl that will start in 2019. Coach Luttrell is doing a fine job down the road and we know we will have a good, hard-fought rivalry game against Harlan,” Creech said. “I think it is a game that will draw a huge crowd and be a game folks in the county look forward to each year.”

Harlan posted a 3-8 record in Luttrell’s first season as head coach but will bring back a veteran team next fall with eight starters back on both offense and defense. Luttrell was a standout linebacker for the Dragons in the 1980s and played on several of the best teams in school history, teams that were eliminated each year by Cumberland during an era when the Redskins played in the Class A state finals three times from 1982 to 1986. Luttrell coached at Cawood in the 1990s and participated in several county matchups during that time

Creech led HCHS to the school’s third 5A regional title last fall as the Bears won seven of eight games after starting the season 1-4. Harlan County swept past defending state runner-up Pulaski County, North Laurel and Southwestern before losing in the final seconds at Madison Southern in the state semifinals. Creech was a star quarterback for Cumberland in the early 2000s and played in numerous county rivalry matchups against Harlan and Evarts when all three competed in the local Class A district.