McCreary trying to rebuild on the run as he begins new challenge in his old home


John Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Jonah Swanner, Brayden Howard, Jacob Middleton, Brady Huskey, Nick Craig, Braxton Cloud, Plez Dean, Luke Kelly, Andrew Johnson, James Ryan Howard, Darren Alred, Josh Napier and Ryley Mefford; middle row: Will Cassim, Trevor Cloud, Josh Sergent, Luke Carr, Dakota Turner, Thomas Jordan, Johnny Brock, Issac Downs, Bryan Howard, Dallas Sergent, Gavon Spurlock, Bradley Young, Dalton Bray, William Jones and Mason Beach; back row: Zack Potter, Ethan Rhymer, Carter Howard, Jacob Shoemaker, Tanner Griffin, Jared Rhymer, Ethan Shepherd, Demarco Hopkins, Jamison Wilkinson, Alex Sanders, Connor Blevins, Ethan Caldwell, Seth Robinson, Andrew Roark and Bradley Henson.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

While he was coaching and winning football games in Georgia from the 1970s through the 2010s, former Evarts linebacker Amos McCreary followed his home county and its teams from afar.
McCreary was mentioned as.a coaching candidate when Harlan County High School opened in 2008. His brother, Freddie, was on Tom Larkey’s coaching staff and the school’s athletic director as the Bears won four straight district titles from 2010 to 2013 and regional championships in 2010 and 2012. McCreary was still keeping up with the Bears when Eddie Creech led them to a third regional title in 2017, then found his back to eastern Kentucky as a coach at Bell County.
When the HCHS job came open for a third time last spring, McCreary finally found his way back and has spent the summer trying to rebuild after the Bears fell to 3-6 in 2021.
“There’s nothing I’d love better for us to be able to win at a high level,” McCreary said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed being back in Harlan County and being able to talk football with people I played with and against and in the decades that followed who I heard about. When I was away from here, I always kept up with Harlan County and read about the teams. Being back here has been a blast.”
Harlan County lost a big senior class in May and will feature a team loaded with sophomores this season. The Bears struggled to stop the pass in a 30-0 scrimmage loss to Middlesboro two weeks ago but bounced back with a 40-18 win at Shelby Valley in their second preseason test.
“We’re so dang young. We only have three or four seniors who have played,” McCreary said. “We’re still trying to figure each other out, but as the games start and films roll in we’ll get a better feel of things. That will help a lot.”
Progress has been slow with a new system and several new players in key roles.
“We just have to try and get better every day,” McCreary said. “I haven’t worried that much about who we’re playing or who is supposed to be good. We just want to get better every week. We don’t want to go backwards. We have to show improvement every day and we can’t get down on ourselves if it doesn’t go like you expect.”
Depth, or a lack of it, is one of McCreary’s biggest concerns going into the season.
“We need to be able to get as may kids on the field as we can,” McCreary said. “We have to be able to get these kids some rest, especially some of our bigger linemen. When you play offense, then have to roll back out there and play defense it’s tough.”
Harlan County’s offense will likely feature tailback Demarco Hopkins for the second straight year after he rushed for 892 yards last season. Hopkins ran for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Bears’ 40-18 scrimmage win Saturday at Shelby Valley.
“I think Demarco has really gotten himself in great shape by working really hard,” McCreary said. “He’s worked hard to get his body in shape this year, and I look for him to have a big season.”
Ethan Rhymer, a 6-5 sophomore, is expected to take over at quarterback following the graduation of Cody Clayborn.
“He’s getting better all the time. He was a little rusty at first and hadn’t thrown the football in a while,” McCreary said. “He made some throws yesterday I hadn’t seen from him yet. If he can keep that up, we’ll be OK. We have to try to hang on to the ball as much as we can. I wouldn’t say right now we’ll be an explosive offensive team, but as the season progress and Ethan gets more comfortable, who knows.”
Thomas Jordan, a sophomore who made some big plays in limited action on offense last year, gives the Bears a threat at either running back or quarterback.
“We think Thomas can create some big plays for us,” McCreary said. “He’s extremely quick and explosive. We could also see him some at quarterback. He’s a kid we can play in a lot of different places.”
Josh Sergent, a junior, will see action at fullback, along with senior Luke Carr, who can play either spot in the backfield and scored on a long run against Shelby Valley.
“Luke can play both positions. He is a little quicker,” McCreary said. “Sergent can pound it up in there and is a good blocker.”
The Bears’ offensive front could be one of the team’s strengths with senior Ethan Shepherd, junior Connor Blevins and sophomores Jacob Shoemaker and Will Cassim back from a season ago when they all saw extensive action.
Blevins and Shoemaker are the probable starters at the tackles.
“Connor is a two-way player for us who also saw some playing time last year. He is a big and strong young man who will help anchor our offensive and defensive lines. We are looking for big things from him this year,” McCreary said. “Shoemaker is a player who has all the tools it takes to be a great high school football player at 6-3 and 324 pounds with a strong work ethic I am really looking forward to seeing how he progresses this season. Both of them are just as good in the classroom and as civic leaders in their communities and church. These kind of young men make coaching a lot of fun.”
Shepherd, a senior, is back at center.
“He’s lost some weight from last season and is able to move a lot better,” McCreary said. “He is handling the position well. He’s one of the strongest kids on the team.”
Cassim is back at one guard after earning a starting job as a freshman last year.
“Will is a strong kid who will win most battles when he gets his hands on you,” McCreary said. “We’d like to see him get a little quicker, but he’s a tough football player who doesn’t mind to mix it up with you.”
Issac Downs, a junior, will play the other guard.
“He’s not a big kid, but he gives us some quickness up there,” McCreary said. “That’s a good sized line with those guys up front. We have to get off the ball and get on people.”
McCreary said the Bears lost Ethan Kinder, a possible starter on the line, to a knee injury he suffered last year.
“He had to have surgery on his knee this summer. He came to every practice this summer and did what he could,” McCreary said. “The MRI showed he had a torn ACL/MCL. I don’t really l know how he came to practice on it. He’s one tough kid.”
Austin Roark, a junior, is the early favorite to take over at tight end.
“I think he will be a surprise. He’s done real well out there,” McCreary said. “He has good hands, and he’s a quick and aggressive kid. He just needs to get in there and play the game.”
Jonah Swanner, a sophomore who hasn’t played football since middle school, showed in both scrimmages that he could be the Bears’ best big-play threat at receiver.
“It was great to see Jonah come out and be part of this team,” McCreary said. “He can do a lot of things when he gets the ball.”
Jared Rhymer, a sophomore, will also see action at receiver.
“Jared has good height and he has gone up and made some plays for us in practice,” McCreary said. “I think he will get a lot stronger and he gets older.”
The Bears’ three-man defensive front will feature Shepherd at nose guard, with Cassim, Blevins and Shoemaker alternating at the tackles. Ethan Caldwell and Dakota Turner will see action at either spot.
“Strength and size wise, we’re pretty good, but we need to be able to get those kids some rest,” McCreary said. “We also need some kids like Dakota to give us a pass rush.”
Hopkins and Carter Howard, a sophomore, are also being counted on to help with the pass rush as the Bears’ outside linebackers.
“Both are new to the position and still learning, but they’ve made pretty good progress,” McCreary said. “They are starting to learn when they are supposed to do. They are both pretty athletic kids and they have to be able to get back in coverage.”
Sergent and Tanner Griffin, both juniors, have big shoes to fill as the inside linebackers with Josh Turner and Hunter Blevins graduating.
“They are both physical kids who will hit,” McCreary said.
Jordan and Swanner are two of the team’s most athletic players as the probable starting cornerbacks, Ryley Mefford could also see some action at corner with Jordan playing safety. Gavon Spurlock and Jared Rhymer are also possible starters at safety. Senior Zach Potter will also see action in the secondary when he gets back from a knee injury.
“The secondary is where we have the least amount of experience and need to grow up in a hurry if we are to have some success,” McCreary said. “We have some talent back there but not much experience.”
Hopkins will handle the punting for the Bears while Downs is the kicker.