HCHS seniors ready to ‘write their story’


Team members include, from left, first row: managers Breanna Bray and Karly Whitaker, coaches Chad Wood, Scotty Bailey, Nick Bray and Jake Middleton and managers Asteria Steele and Lacey Sanders: second row: coaches Needham Saylor, Zack Caldwell, Denny Farmer, Eddie Creech, manager Trey Creech, coaches Jason Sanders, Jeff Branson and Ed Creech; third row: Tyler Flanary, Matt Brown, Jacob Brown, Josh Swanner, Brett Roark, Cody Clayborn, Josh Turner and Gavin Ewald; fourth row: Hunter Blevins, Demarco Hopkins, Jordan Steele, Hunter Helton, Hunter Penny, Ethan Shepherd, Ethan Caldwell and Thomas Jordan; fifth row: Donovan Simmons, Luke Carr, Josh Caudill, Alex Sanders, Zach Potter, Timothy Bailey, Andrew Johnson and Johnny Brock; sixth row: Chuckie Blackshire, Gavon Spurlock, Bradley Young, Austin Roark, Isaac Downs, Ethan Kinder, Tanner Griffin and Connor Blevins; seventh row: Will Cassim, Carter Howard, Ethan Rhymer, Jared Rhymer, Tyler Baker, Jonah Mumford, Brayden Howard, Jacob Shoemaker and Steven Childers; eighth row: Bryan Howard, Dallas Sergent, Shawn Carroll, Nick Craig, Bradley Henson, Mason Beach, Darren Alred and Christian Middleton.

Ever since several of the Harlan County High School seniors were middle school state champions as eighth-graders in the fall of 2016, they have carried around lofty expectations.
That group of Black Bears has already experienced its share of success, playing on a regional championship team as freshmen, a district championship team as sophomores and an 8-4 squad as juniors that won at least one playoff game for a third straight year.
Taking the next step is the Bears’ primary objective in 2020 after an offseason filled with uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic that threatened to sideline the entire season.
“I think you’ll see a different type of football, but I think you will see a re-energized brand of football because this gave all of us — players, coaches and fans — a new appreciation for the game,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “They should go out and play every game like it could be their last.”
How the Bears handle the expectations will be a challenge and perhaps a key to their success in 2020.
“I told them this summer that the seniors went out three years ago with a regional championship. The seniors two years ago went out with a district championship, and the seniors last year won eight games, were undefeated at home and won a playoff game and lost to an undefeated state champ,” Creech said. “It’s up to them how they want to write their story. They have been on the teams with those seniors classes. It’s their turn now.
“I think, looking at the work the majority of them have put in during the offseason, they are ready. They were on the field last year with the best running back (Braedon Slone) in the state in Wayne County and were on the field with the state champs twice, so they know what it takes.”
Getting past Johnson Central in District 8 of 4A will likely be the most difficult challenge. The Golden Eagles have made four straight trips to the 4A finals with championships in 2016 and 2019.
“It depends on how you view that setup in the playoffs,” Creech said. “People can say it’s tough to get out to the second round, but if you can beat them it means you can win a state championship because you’ve knocked out one of the best teams.”
Continued improvement on the offensive front could be the key to the Bears’ continued improvement this season.
“Football games are won and lost up front, and we lost some very good players there on offense,” Creech said. “I like what we have behind those guys, but it will take us some time to find some continuity up front.”
With Ben Landis (1,205 yards rushing in 2019) and Tyler Casolari (420 yards rushing) graduating, the Bears will turn to seniors Demarco Hopkins and Josh Turner to take over the lead roles in the HCHS backfield.
Demarco Hopkins ran for 350 yards in 2019. Turner added 149 yards rushing. Both have lost weight and gained strength in the offseason.
“Demarco has transformed his body and is more of a true tailback type. We’re anxious to see how that translates on the field,” Creech said. “Josh is another kid who has transformed his body. He played a lot of fullback in the past, but he’s dropped 15 or 20 pounds and his speed has increased. I know both of those kids want the ball in their hands.”
Matt Brown, who had 16 catches for 305 yards last season while adding 240 yards rushing, remains the Bears’ best big-play threat as a receiver and running back.
“Matt’s attitude coming into his senior has been phenomenal,” Creech said. “He’s put on about 15 pounds of muscle and not lost any speed. He understands his role. He has to be a playmaker.”
Gavin Ewald and Tyler Flanary, both seniors, are the probable starters at receiver.
“Both are four-year players who have added strength and speed. They both understand what we are looking for at wide receiver,” Creech said.
Luke Carr, a junior, will take over at fullback.
“Pound for pound, Luke is one of the toughest kids on the team,” Creech said. “He will do whatever is asked of him, whether it’s block or run.”
Cody Clayborn, a senior who saw extensive action the last two seasons backing up Jacob Wilson, will take over as the starter at quarterback.
“You’re looking at a guy who went to Perry as a sophomore and orchestrated a win that led to a district championship. He has a playoff win (over South Laurel) under his belt as a starter,” Creech said. “We’re expecting big things from him. He has one of the best arms on him that I have ever coached.”
Ethan Rhymer, a freshman, and Chuckie Blackshire, a sophomore, are the reserve quarterbacks.
The Bears have two starters back on the offensive front in seniors Jordan Steele (6-3, 290) and Lake Caudill (5-8, 235). Steele moves from tackle to center while Caudill moves from left guard to right guard.
“Jordan is an aggressive football player. He’s physical and experienced,” Creech said. “Lake is a hard-nosed kid who makes up for lack of size with great effort.”
Connor Blevins (5-9, 270), a sophomore who was a leader on last year’s junior varsity team will take over at right tackle.
“He had a really good offseason in the weight room,” Creech said. “It will take some time for him to adjust to the speed of varsity ball, but I’m sure he’ll be OK. He’s a gritty player.”
Two freshmen who were standouts on last year’s New Harlan team could earn starting jobs with Will Cassim (6-2, 295) at left guard and Jacob Shoemaker (6-2, 280) at left tackle.
“Will doesn’t play or look like a freshman. He’s a very physical kid who moves really well,” Creech said. “Jacob is a big specimen who is still adjusting to the speed and physical side of high school football.”
Ethan Caldwell (5-10, 265) and Ethan Shepherd (5-10, 295), both juniors, could also see action on the line.
Brett Roark (6-4, 225) and Hunter Helton (6-4, 240), both seniors, will serve as the starting tight ends. Roark could also shift over to tackle.
“You have two seniors who are really physical and understand leverage. They are used to our offensive scheme,” Creech said.
Defense should be a strength for the Bears with seven starters returning, including six seniors.
“I like what we have on defense with our leadership and ability,” Creech said. “We have a lot of guys who have proven themselves.”
The linebacking corps returns three of four starters, led by Hunter Blevins on the inside and Turner on the outside. Blevins led the team in tackles last season with 81, one ahead of Turner. Gavin Ewald is back on the outside, opposite Turner, while Carr is expected to fill the vacant spot on the inside. Tanner Griffin, a sophomore, will see action inside.
“I feel good about our outside linebackers. They have good speed, are physical and understand the game,” Creech said. “You need two physical middle linebackers in the ’34’ and those guys fit the bill.”
Shepherd will play nose guard as the Bears’ shift to a “34” alignment this season after playing a four-man front last year.
“He is the strongest kid on the team, and we expect him to eat up a couple of gaps on the inside,” Creech said.
Steele and Helton are back at the tackles, with Roark also seeing extensive action. Blevins and Cassim provide depth.
“Hunter is a three-year starter who provides the knowledge of what we’re trying to do,” Creech said. “Jordan is a gamer. He always seems to make big-time plays at opportune times.”
Flanary is back at one corner, with Zach Potter and Donovan Simmons seeing action at the other.
“Flanary made some big plays for us last year, especially the latter half of the season,” Creech said. “The other two have been successful on the JV level. I’m anxious to see how they step up to varsity competition.”
Candidates at safety include Brown, Thomas Jordan, Josh Swanner and Jonah Mumford.
Steele will handle kickoffs and extra points with Hopkins doing the punting.

Harlan County
Sept. 11 at Knox Central
Sept. 18 Wayne County
Sept. 25 Clay County
Oct. 2 at Letcher Central
Oct. 9 Hazard
Oct. 16 Johnson Central
Oct. 23 at Perry Central
Oct. 30 Bell County
Nov. 6 at Pike Central


Matt Brown battled to break away from a Letcher Central defender last season.


Cody Clayborn will take over the Harlan County offense this season at quarterback.


Senior linebacker Josh Turner ranked second on the HCHS defense last season in tackles.