Dragons expect to build on improvement from a season ago, challenge in district


John Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Jared Elridge, Darius Akal, Donovan Montanaro, R.W. Sanford and Tayquan Vick; second row: Peyton Thompson, Chris Taylor, Trenton Childers, Nate Montanaro and Cameron Gray; third row: Matthew Nunez, Jonathan Lewis, Andrew Roark, Evan Browning and Cade Middleton; fourth row: manager Maggie Shelton, Will Austin, Malachi Rodriguez, Hanna Pace and Connor Witt; fifth row: Noah Kirby, Jayden Ward, Triston Cochran and Derek Pruitt; sixth row: coach Joe Bill Baker, Cameren Maples, Eli Sizemore and Hunter Clem; back row: manager Robbie Asher, trainer Michael Curry, coach Chris Thompson and coach Eric Perry.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

One season after tripling their win total while dodging delays and cancelations due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Harlan Green Dragons and coach Eric Perry are more than a little optimistic entering the 2021 season.
“The whole mentality is just different. The culture has changed so much, and I knew coming in that’s what it would be about,” said Perry as he prepares for his third season as the leader of the program. “We wanted to be a major contender in Class A at this point, and I will be shocked if we’re not.”
Finding depth, especially on the line, is the key to Harlan’s success this year, according to Perry. The Dragons bring back most of their top skill guys from a year ago, other than running back/quarterback Ethan Clem
“If we are able to develop a couple of linemen, offensively especially, it will help our kids go one way on defense. If we can develop a couple of linemen, we’ll be a tough out,” Perry said. “I feel really good about our team. I feel good about our chances. We just have to keep plugging and working hard. If we don’t develop a couple of linemen, we won’t get there.”
One reason Perry feels so optimistic about the Dragons’ chances this year is a defense that improved dramatically a year ago. After a season-opening blowout loss to Middlesboro, Harlan allowed just over 20 points per game the remainder of the season. The Dragons had a lead at Pineville in the playoffs before the Lions rallied to win 21-14 in a game that came down to the wire.
“I think it was obvious, as the season went on, that we got better on defense,” Perry said. “I think that was due to the extra practice time we got last year (due to covid canceling games). We only played six games. I looked at us once last year and told coach (Joe Bill) Baker that we fooled around and got better, and we had. We really felt we could win the (Pineville) game. I think if Caleb (Middleton) had another game under his belt, there was no question.”
Dylan Middleton, who was second on the team in tackles last season with 35, will move from end to middle linebacker to lead the defense. He will be flanked by Triston Cochran and Jared Eldridge in an all-senior linebacking corps.
“Dylan has a motor on him, and he’s gotten so much stronger. He’s a great tackler and is super aggressive with bad intentions when he gets there. I look for a really big year from him,” Perry said. “Jared has played just about everywhere and can help in so many places. He’s a tough kid, and we expect big things from him. Triston could be really good on defense, and I think he could help us just as much there as at running back.”
Jon Lewis, a 5-10, 300-pound senior, will be back to anchor the defensive front at tackle where he will team with Eli Sizemore, Peyton Thompson or Connor Witt.
“Jon took the offseason serious and got really stronger. He has also taken more of a leadership role. We hope some of these other guys will come on so we can just keep Jon on defense. He’s a mainstay for us. He makes our defense click,” Perry said.
Options at end include Noah Kirby, Hunter Clem, Derek Pruitt and Andrew Roark.
The Dragons bring back everyone in the secondary, including Jayden Ward and Darius Akal at the corners and Evan Browning and Donovan Montanaro at the safeties. Tayquan Vick and Nate Montanaro will also see plenty of action in the defensive backfield.
“We feel good about all those guys. They are very athletic and can go get the ball,” Perry said. “Darius has super speed and the other three have really good speed. We also feel good about Tayquan helping us there.”
On the offensive side, one big reason for the Dragons’ optimism on is the return of Cade Middleton at quarterback. Middleton sat out during last year’s regular season after a transfer from Harlan County but was impressive in a seven-point playoff loss at Pineville as he completed 19 of 43 passes for 217 years and a touchdown.
“Cade is still raw because last year’s playoff game was his first start (at quarterback). He’s a strong kid and very knowledgeable and a great leader,” Perry said. “He can also help us in the run game. People will have trouble tackling him.”
Perry has some playmakers in the Dragons’ four-receiver sets, led by Browning and Akal. Browning led the Dragons last year with 10 receptions for 165 yards and 10 touchdowns. Akal had seven catches for 70 yards. Donovan Montanaro will also see action at receiver.
“Darius has been a pleasant surprise. He’s always had good hands, but he’s gotten so much faster and will be a matchup problem for people,” Perry said. “Evan is very consistent with deceptive speed and really good hands. He’s a good route runner and is very dependable. They are both good blockers. We feel those two guys can make big plays and help us with blocking on the edge.”
Dylan Middleton, a senior, shifts from offensive tackle to play “H” back where he will see action as both a receiver and running back.
“He would have been a tight end for sure last year, but we played him at tackle due to necessity,” Perry said. “He doesn’t care where he plays. He just wants to win. He probably has the best hands on the team and runs good routes with decent speed.
Perry has a couple of options at tight end that bring plenty of size to the position with 6-4 freshman Hunter Clem and 6-6 junior Derek Pruitt.
Ward, who is repeating his junior season, led the Dragons in rushing yardage last year with 279 yards and should be the team’s primary ball carrier this year. Cochran, a senior who has been slowed by injuries, will also see action in the backfield, along with Eldridge.
“Jayden is real steady and do what you want him to do. He takes care of the football and runs hard,” Perry said. “We need Triston to be healthy this year because he’s another weapon.”
The Dragons bring back three starters on the offensive front, led by tackles Andrew Roark and Malachi Rodriguez. Matt Nunez is competing with Roark for playing time on the right side. Eli Sizemore and Connor Witt will also see action at left tackle
“I think both will play. I really don’t know who has the edge. Matt has come on in the last couple of days, but Andrew is a seasoned player,” Perry said. “Malachi got a lot stronger in the weight room. I think Eli will help us up front as the year goes on. He also has gotten stronger. Conner Witt is a freshman who has never played and has worked hard every day.”
Trenton Childers, a sophomore, moved in at center early last season after an injury and responded well.
“He was kind of thrown to the wolves last year, but he really competed,” Perry said. “He’s grown from 170 pounds last year to 210. He really worked in the weight room this winter.”
Lewis, a senior, and Peyton Thompson, a freshman, are the probable starting guards. Noah Kirby, a sophomore, will also see action at guard.
“Jon didn’t play a lot of offense last year, but until we can develop some other linemen he will probably start,” Perry said. “Peyton is a big kid who got really strong in the winter. He’s going to be a player. He loves football and studies football and is a hard-working type of kid.”
While Williamsburg remains the district favorite after winning its fifth straight title with a relatively young team last year, Perry likes the Dragons’ chances to compete with Pineville for second place and a home playoff game and insists they still have a shot to compete for district and regional titles. Harlan last won a district title in 2015 and has never won a regional championship in football.
“A couple of years ago, I was sitting in here thinking what have I gotten myself into. Now, I’m thinking we could be pretty daggone good, and that’s a good feeling and a big testimony to our kids. They feel good about what’s going on and we feel good about what’s going on,” Perry said. ““How many wins will we have? I don’t know. Are we going to win a state championship? I’m not saying that, but we are going to be a tough out.”
“Williamsburg may be a state favorite, and I said when I took over that if we are a consistent regional contender, then we’re a state contender. We’re not here to be second, so I think it’s very realistic we can play for a regional championship.”