Dragons hope to take next step after down-to-wire playoff losses last two seasons


Tyler Helton

Team members include, from left, front row: Hunter Clem, R.W. Sanford, Eli Sizemore, Trenton Childers, Malachi Rodriguez, Noah Kirby, Matthew Nunez and Peyton Thompson; second row: Ryley Mefford, Dylan Middleton, Donovan Montanaro, coach Eric Perry, Noah Sharp, Nate Montanaro and Tayquan Vick; third row: Jayden Ward, Will Austin, Connor Witt, Darius Akal, Camryn Hammonds and Shaun Burnette; fourth row: Cameren Maples, Sedrick Washington, Gage Bailey, Brayden Down and Matthew Brock; back row: coaches Joe Bill Baker, Jerry Perry, Robbie Asher, Tyler Stewart and Chris Thompson.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

On the verge of snapping a postseason losing streak that has now reached seven, the Harlan Green Dragons watched their last two seasons end in heartbreak at Pineville.
With eight starters coming back on each side of the ball, the Green Dragons hope this is the year they can take the next step. Harlan led most of the way in each of the last two playoff losses before falling 28-21 in 2020 and 29-28 last season.
“Even though we lost those two games, I felt our kids were peaking at the end of the year, and that’s what you want,” Harlan coach Eric Perry said. “I think we played our best football in those two playoff games. With a bounce here or there, we’re 2-0 in those games. We led most of the way in both games, but they are a good team.”
While Pineville and Harlan have battled or a home playoff game, Williamsburg has owned District 8 with six straight championships and remain a big favorite for a seventh with quarterback Sydney Bowen back for his senior season.
“They are the favorites until someone can knock them off. I think we were the last to do it in 2015,” Perry said. “That’s just how it is.”
Harlan loses its most consistent weapon on offense with the graduation of quarterback Cade Middleton, but Perry expects a more varied attack this year led by senior running backs Jayden Ward, who rushed for a team-high 698 yards and scored 56 points, and Dylan Middleton, who added 284 yards rushing and 50 points while pulling in 23 catches to rank second behind Evan Browning, also a 2022 graduate.
“Jayden is a hard-nosed kid who will play on both sides of the ball. He’s our leader and will give you those tough yards. He’s not flashy, but he has deceptive speed,” Perry said. “Dylan does everything for us. He will also get some carries at ‘H’ back. He’s the most versatile kid on our team. We feel we have three or four guys who can help us. We aren’t set up to have someone get 25 or 30 carries. We want to keep fresh legs in there.”
Donovan Montanaro, a junior, will take over at quarterback with his brother, Nate, a sophomore, providing depth.
“We have been working with Donovan and Nate and it’s been a good competition,” Perry said. “Donovan is the leader right now. He is very capable. We throw a lot on our quarterback, and he’s a triple threat there. He is a tough matchup. Donovan and Nate are both shifty and can make you miss. Donovan doesn’t throw it as well as Cade, but he will get better.”
Darius Akal, a sophomore who rushed for 87 yards and added 12 catches for 166 yards last year, should fill a bigger role in the Harlan offense this season at both tailback and receiver.
“Darius can play running back or in a slot. He is going to be a tough matchup. He is stronger and heavier,” Perry said. “He is kind of on the radar of some schools. He is very athletic and a 4.6 guy who will probably be a 4.5 guy before he leaves. He has a great work ethic.”
Perry has several options at receiver, led by 6-3 senior Will Austin, who had 20 catches last fall in his first season of high school football.
“It took us half a season to figure out what we needed to do with Will,” Perry said. “He’s a vertical guy who can run. He could have a huge year for us. He’s a diamond in the rough who hasn’t played a lot.”
Tayquan Vick and Nate Montanaro will also see action at receiver, along with Rylie Mefford, a senior who transferred from Harlan County.
“There are a lot of combinations we’re looking at. The main thing we’re looking for is blocking,” Perry said. “Tayquan has good hands and quickness.”
Sedrick Washington and Gage Bailey, both freshmen, could also see action in the backfield.
A major question mark last year due to the unit’s youth, the offensive front continues to improve with four starters back — center Matt Nunez, guards Peyton Thompson and Trenton Childers and tackle Hunter Clem.
“Our linemen are a year older and a year stronger,” Perry said. “I think our line will be our strength next year since we have them all back again.”
Perry likes the progress he’s seen from the returning linemen.
“Matt is a pretty athletic kid and is very smart. We expect a lot out of him,” he said. “Both our guards have gotten a lot stronger and faster. Trenton was our leader up front last year and is about 25 pounds heavier. I expect a big improvement from both of them. Hunter came out to play tight end, but as the year went on he took to the offensive and defensive lines. He’s a lot stronger and faster. He’s so raw, and I think the sky’s the limit. I think the unit could turn into a strength this year.”
There are several candidates to round out the offensive front, including Eli Sizemore and Malachi Rodriguez. Middleton and R.W. Sanford, both seniors, are also candidates even though Middleton has played primarily in the backfield and Sanford is best known for his work at linebacker.
“Malachi and Eli both played there some last year,” Perry said. “We’ve also gotten some reps from Dylan and R.W.”
Perry’s brother, Jerry, has taken over as the Dragons’ defensive coordinator, a role he held on multiple state championship teams at Danville in a coaching career that also included two stints as head coach at Garrard County.
“It’s been a great adjustment for us,” Perry said. “The kids have taken to him and he’s taken to them.”
The strength of this year’s defense appears to be its athleticism in the secondary, where the five-man unit will include Vick and Akal on the corners with Austin and the Montanaros as the safeties. Washington and Bailey will also see action and provide quality depth.
“They are very talented. They all have pretty good speed,” Perry said. “We’ve matched up real well with everyone in the 7-on-7 scrimmages. We have nine kids back there who can run a 5-flat or better.”
Sanford, last year’s top tackler with 90, returns at middle linebacker.
“He has a nose for the ball and a good motor,” Perry said. “He’s strong with pretty good speed. He’s a leader on defense.”
Ward and Mefford are the starters on the outside when the Dragons go with three linebackers.
“We moved Jayden to linebacker last year and he did a great job. We expect him to be a mainstay for us there and a leader as well,” Perry said. “Mefford has been a pleasant surprise since he came to us in February. He’s pretty strong and packs a punch. Hs is eager to learn our system. We expect him to help us.”
Middleton, last year’s third-leading tackler with 70, is back at end, along with Kirby.
“They both have experience there. Dylan was a lot better when we played him at end last year. He has good technique and does a great job there,” Perry said. “When Noah plays the way we want him to play he’s pretty good. When he does his own thing we have problems at time, but he has a lot of potential.”
Connor Witt and Childers are the starting tackles when the Dragons go with a four-man front. Witt will play nose guard when a three-man front is required.
“We’re trying to get to the point where we these linemen can go one way,” Perry said. “Connor is a big kid who has improved his strength. He just has to learn to play the right way. Childers was one of our best linemen last year, and he’s gotten a lot stronger. Our linemen are a year older and a year stronger. I think our line will be our strength next year since we have them all back again.”
As with many Class A teams, depth is a question mark for the Green Dragons and their 26-man roster as they head into the regular season.
“Our key is how healthy we can stay. That will be a big factor for us,” Perry said. “When you have 26 and you lose a couple of kids, it’s devastating. It’s hard to come back from that. If we can stay healthy, I think we can have a good year.”