HCHS opens season with First Priority Bowl rout of South Laurel


Kim Henson

Harlan County junior tailback Thomas Jordan broke through the South Laurel defense for a big game Friday in the season-opening FIrst Priority Bowl. Jordan ran for 134 yards and three touchdowns in the Black Bears’ 43-7 victory.

The Harlan County Black Bears carried over the good from the 2021 season and fixed much of the bad in a 43-7 win over visiting South Laurel on Friday in the season-opener for both teams in the First Priority Bowl.
Harlan County continued to show a strong ground game with junior Thomas Jordan taking over the lead role from the graduated Demarco Hopkins, rushing for 142 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 382-yard night as a team.
The Black Bears showed dramatic improvement on the defensive side, both in tackling on a night they held the Cardinals minus five yards rushing and in pass defense as they picked off four passes and limited South to 67 yards through the air.
“I think we rallied to the football pretty well,” Harlan County coach Amos McCreary said. “Our pass defense looked better. Coach (Bill) Dean has done a great job with the secondary and working with those boys, along with the linebackers. They are learning we have to play the pass as well as the run because everyone is throwing the ball. We went after the football better. We want to compete. We’ve also improved quite a bit in tackling because we’ve worked hard at it in the preseason.”
Jordan was impressive but was far from a one-man show as sophomore James Ryan Howard added 80 yards and junior Jonah Swanner contributed 81 yards on only two carries. Senior fullback. Josh Sergent had 77 yards on five carries.
“Thomas can play. There’s no doubt,” McCreary said. “We have several kids who can make plays. Jonah (Swanner) and Luke (Kelly) made some big plays for us and James Ryan (Howard) ran the ball well. Josh (Sergent) ran the ball real hard. We had a lot of weapons. We’ll play a pretty physical team next week though.”
Junior quarterback Ethan Rhymer also had success, especially early, to help loosen up the South defense. He completed three of four passes, all in the first half, as the Bears started a running clock by the break.
“They had nine in there to start, but we came out and completed some passes and got outside several times,” McCreary said.
The Black Bears marched 65 yards in eight plays on the opening drive. Swanner caught a pass from Ethan Rhymer for one first down, then Jordan and Swanner picked up first downs on the ground before Jordan took a pitch from Rhymer and raced 30 yards for a touchdown. After a South Laurel penalty, Sergent went in for the two-point conversion.
South drove into HCHS territory before the defense stepped up with a couple of big plays. Will Cassim dropped Brad Elza for a two-yard loss on second down, then Darren Alred penetrated on fourth down to shut down a run to put the HCHS offense back in business.
The Bears needed only two Jordan runs to reach the end zone late in the opening quarter after HC recovered a fumble. Jordan went 26 yards on the next play, then ran 10 yards for a touchdown with 2:17 left in the opening quarter. Another South penalty led to a pass from Rhymer to Swanner for two points and a 16-0 lead.
A Sergent interception in the closing seconds of the first quarter set up an eight-play, 33-yard scoring drive capped by Howard’s 2-yard run with 8:44 left in the first half. Issac Downs hit the first of three extra points in the second period for a 23-0 lead.
Swanner needed only play to reach the end zone on the Bears’ next possession as he electrified the crowd with a dazzling 74-yard scamper for a touchdown with 6:48 to play in the half. Downs’ extra point extended the HCHS lead to 30-0.
Jordan, Sergent and Swanner each picked up first downs after a Swanner interception to set up Jordan’s 12-yard touchdown with 48 seconds to play in the half. Downs’ extra point made the score 37-0.
A Gavon Spurlock interception helped the Bears preserve the first-half shutout.
South Laurel’s Hunter Bundy returned the second-half kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown, then James Cox followed with the extra point to put the Cardinals on the board.
The Cardinals got the ball back after a Harlan County fumble, but the HC defense responded as Cassim and company dropped Mitchell for a loss on third down.
Sergent ran 43 yards to set up his 11-yard TD run on the final play of the third quarter. The Bears were stopped on the conversion after a fumbled snap.
A Luke Kelly interception was the highlight of the fourth quarter and the fourth of the night for the Bears.
Harlan County returns to action Friday at home against Hazard. South Laurel plays host to Estill County on Friday.

Harlan County sophomore halfback James Ryan Howard followed a block from guard Will Cassim during the Black Bears’ 43-7 win over South Laurel on Friday. (Kim Henson)