HC, Harlan open season against teams that were winless in 2020

Harlan+County+senior+running+back+Luke+Carr+ran+through+a+drill+in+a+practice+session+earlier+this+summer.+The+Bears+open+their+regular+season+schedule+on+Friday+at+home+against+South+Laurel.

Chris Jones

Harlan County senior running back Luke Carr ran through a drill in a practice session earlier this summer. The Bears open their regular season schedule on Friday at home against South Laurel.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Harlan County and Harlan will begin their seasons on Friday against teams that share something in common — both will be looking for the first wins since 2019.
South Laurel, losers of 14 straight, will travel to Harlan County on Friday for the First Priority Bowl. The Cardinals, who finished 0-8 last season, welcomed back Jep Irwin in the offseason for his second stint as coach. Irwin was head coach at South Laurel High School from 2002-2005 and led the Cardinals to a 9-3 mark during his final season. He posted a 24-20 record during his four years in London, including the program’s last playoff win in 2015.
“We want to work every day to improved and develop our identity as a program,” Irwin told Les Dixon of the Corbin Times Tribune. “We want to be as successful as possible in year one for our seniors especially. We are young and that youth and also everything that is new may limit our ceiling somewhat this season, but we are looking at getting better everyday as a reachable goal. Winning a district game and making the playoffs is certainly realistic.”
South Laurel will basically start from scratch on offense with linemen Logan White and Tate Anderson the only players that were consistent starters. The Cardinals averaged 25 points per game last season while scoring 30 points on four occasions.
“We have almost all new skill players,” Irwin said. “Our athleticism at the skill positions is good, even though we are inexperienced.”
The Cardinals have thrown the ball quite a bit in both of their scrimmages, and that’s what Harlan County coach Amos McCreary is expecting this week.
“Both films I’ve seen, they throw it all over the place. They have two or three running plays and that’s it. They will throw it and that’s a big concern,” he said. “We’ve got an inexperienced secondary and we’re trying every day to get them where they know they are supposed to be. We didn’t do well against the pass against Middlesboro and we didn’t do well until the second half against Shelby when we got to them a couple of times. We’re trying to get more speed on the field.”
South Laurel struggled last season on defense, allowing almost 52 points per game. The lowest point total the the Cardinals allowed last season was 42 against Mercer County. Teams scored at least 50 points or more five times last season, including Whitley County’s 69-point scoring effort.
“Defensively, Brad Elza, Logan White, Brice Mills, and Jackson Hammack are returnees there,” Irwin said.
Hammack, a tight end, had 13 catches for 242 yards last season.
Jimmy Mitchell, a sophomore linebacker, was third on the team in tackles last season with 43. James Stephens and Elza added 37 and 22 tackles, respectively.
Harlan County split its two scrimmages, losing to Middlesboro two weeks ago before bouncing back with a win Saturday at Shelby Valley. The game Friday will mark McCreary’s debut as head coach of the Bears and he’d like nothing better than to start with a victory.
“If you get started positive, you can build from there. Me being new, it helps everybody to get out of the gate with a win,” McCreary said. “Things don’t always go the way we want, so if it doesn’t we’ll regroup and go right back to work.”
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Berea, which will play host to Harlan on Friday, was also 0-8 last season and has lost nine straight. The Pirates lost every game by double digits last season except a 24-22 loss to Harlan in late August.
The Pirates bring back several key players from last season, led by senior quarterback Jayson Coburn, who completed 62 of 144 passes last season for 697 yards. Senior running back Jaiden Cunningham added 488 yards rushing on 94 carries. Clayton Martinez had 22 catches last season, while Yamil Cruz added 14.
“We’ve played them the first two years I’ve been here and split with them. Both were very competitive games, and we expect this to be no different,” Harlan coach Eric Perry said. “They do return Cunningham at running back and the quarterback is back as well. The Cruz kid is a good athlete with a lot of speed. It should be a really good game.”
Koty Roberts, a junior linebacker, and Joe Collins, a senior linebacker, led the Pirates in tackles last year with 25 and 22, respectively. Cruz had 21 tackles, followed by Ashton Music with 20.
Harlan posted a 3-3 record last season after winning only one game the year before, and Perry expects to build on that improvement this season.
“We have to focus on ourselves and what we have to do to get better and block out the outside distractions,” he said. “We have to take every opponent serious. We’re not in a position to overlook anybody. We definitely want to get started on the right track. We know we’ll make mistakes, but we have to keep learning from them.”