It wasn’t the season that Harlan County’s 14-man senior class expected, beginning with fears of not being able to play at all due to the worldwide coronarvirus pandemic followed by a string of fourth-quarter disappointments that led to a surprising a 1-5 start.
The Black Bears were able to put aside those disappointments in their last game at Coal Miners Memorial Stadium on Friday and won for the second straight week with a 38-21 victory over East Jessamine (1-6).
“I’m proud of the kids,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “East Jessamine had some very good athletes. Like Anderson County last week, they would have a lot better record if they played all their games in this part of the state.”
Harlan County had no shortage of standouts, led by senior tailback Demarco Hopkins with a 29-carry, 175-yard, three-touchdown performance.
“We didn’t think Demarco ran like he was capable a few weeks back against Letcher Central and we got after him pretty hard,” Creech said. “He has really answered the challenge the last several weeks.”
The HCHS offensive front was also solid as the Bears won the battle in the trenches with 258 yards on the ground and were especially effective when Hopkins lined up at quarterback in what Creech calls his “Wildbear” offense. The Bears scored on both possessions in that alignment.
“We’ve moved the ball real well the last two weeks, and we thought that would be crucial in both games,” Creech said. “The Wildbear gives us an extra blocker, and we did a nice job with it.”
Josh Turner, a senior fullback, added 45 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Thomas Jordan had a breakout game with 32 yards on four carries and a drive-stopping interception in the end zone. Senior linebacker Hunter Blevins, the state’s leading tackler in 4A, likely topped the 100-tackle mark for the season in the game with another strong effort to lead the HCHS defense along with Turner.
After an exchange of turnovers to start the game, a blocked punt against Harlan County’s Jordan Steele and a recovered fumble by the Bears two plays later, HCHS started a drive that covered 85 yards in seven plays.
Hopkins and Jordan each picked up first downs before Hopkins broke free up the middle for a 38-yard touchdown out of the Wildbear formation. Hopkins’ two-point conversion gave the Bears an 8-0 lead with 5:36 left in the opening quarter.
East answered with the help of a pass interference penalty against the Bears. Connor Darby found Derek Bokros for a 12-yard TD pass with 1:47 to play in the opening period. Darby and Borkros teamed up for the tying two-point conversion.
A bruising 45-yard kickoff return by Blevins put the Bears in position for another score. Turner capped the two-play drive with an 11-yard burst up the middle. Hopkins’ two-point conversion put HCHS up 16-8 with 1:21 left in the opening quarter.
A Jordan interception on the next to last play of the period stopped an East Jessamine drive, but the Bears were unable to capitalize.
Harlan County went back to its Wildbear attack on their next drive and marched 67 yards in seven plays, capped by Hopkins’ 31-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-three play.
A 48-yard touchdown run by Tajii Jackson, followed by Jon Alverson’s kick, cut the deficit to seven with 1:42 left in the first half.
Harlan County marched 45 yards in eight plays after stopping the Jaguars on downs to open the second half. Hopkins had six carries in the drive, but Turner went the final 9 yards for the touchdown. Cody Clayborn connected with tight end Gavin Ewald for the two-point conversion and a 30-15 lead with 3:47 to play in the quarter.
Donovan Motley scored on a 2-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap a nine-play, 64-yard march against what appeared, at the time, to be a tiring HCHS defense. Blevins and teammates combined to make the stop on the two-point conversion, maintaining a two-possession lead.
The Jaguars got the ball back with just over seven minutes left, but this time the Bears’ defense answered the call. Blevins tackled Motley for a four-yard loss on first down. Several Bears dropped backup quarterback Justin Hisle for a 14-yard loss on fourth down with 4:47 left.
Hopkins went in from the 5 with 31 seconds left to close the scoring. Turner added the two-point conversion.
Harlan County (3-5) will travel to defending state champ Johnson Central for the first round of the 4A playoffs on Friday.
Harlan County 38, East Jessamine 21
East Jessamine 8 7 0 6 —21
Harlan County 16 6 8 8 — 38
HC — Hopkins 38 run (Hopkins run)
EJ — Bokros 12 pass from Darby (Bokros pass from Darby)
HC — Turner 11 run (Hopkins 11 run)
HC — Hopkins 31 run (run failed)
EJ — Jackson 48 run (Alverson kick)
HC — Turner 9 run (Ewald pass from Clayborn)
EJ — Motley 2 run (run failed)
HC — Hopkins 5 run (Turner run)
First downs 10. 15
Rushing-Yds 34-184 47-258
Passing 43 11
Comp-Att-Int 6-13-1. 2-5-0
Penalties 6-57 4-35
Punts 1-30 3-39
Fumbles 2-1 0-0
RUSHING—East Jessamine, Jackson 8-106, Motley 13-49, Darby 8-27, Johnson 2-12, McGrann 2-4, Hisle 1-(-14). Harlan County, Hopkins 29-175, Turner 11-45, Jordan 4-32, Flanary 2-13, Clayborn 1-(-7).
PASSING — East Jessamine, Darby 4-8-1-27, Hisle 1-5-0-16. Harlan County, Clayborn 2-5-0-11
RECEIVING—East Jessamine, Bokros 3-41, Ramey 1-9, Darby 1-7, Jackson 1-(-4). Harlan County, Flanary 2-11.