Johnson’s big plays again prove too much for Bears


Kim Henson

Harlan County linebacker Josh Sergent returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown during the Black Bears’ 40-20 loss to visiting Hazard.


Clinging to an 8-7 lead over visiting Hazard late in the first half Friday, the Harlan County Black Bears had followed their week-long plan to keep running back Max Johnson in check.
Johnson, a senior who scored four touchdowns in last year’s win over HCHS, broke loose on runs of 51 and 56 yards in the final 2:41 of the half as the Bulldogs turned a one-point deficit into a 13-point lead. Johnson finished with 230 yards and three touchdowns as Hazard pulled away for a 40-20 victory.
“We have to get a lot better at tackling and getting more people to the football,” Harlan County coach Amos McCreary said. “One guy may not get him down, so you need three or four to get to him. We didn’t do that. We have to rally to the ball better.”
After falling behind 7-0, the Bears took the lead with an impressive 14-play, 60-yard drive that featured Thomas Jordan lined up at quarterback out of the wildcat formation. Jordan had six carries in the drive, including a 5-yard TD run at tailback with 3:31 left in the first half. He also added the two-point conversion to put HCHS on top, at least briefly. Jordan went out early in the second half with an apparent concussion and star receiver/running back Jonah Swanner exited in the first quarter after aggravating a thigh bruise.
“We felt pretty good about that (the wildcat formation). We thought we could move the ball on them, but then Swanner went our early and then Thomas went out. It took a big part of what we wanted to do out of us,” McCreary said. “Then we lost those two in the secondary and we didn’t know if Gavon (Spurlock) was going to play until game time. We had two or three guys back there who hadn’t played much, so they took advantage of that also.”
Without their top two athletes, the Bears were unable to match up with Hazard’s athleticism. Sophomore quarterback Max Palfrey overcame a slow start to throw for 193 yards, completing 12 of 22 attempts, including four to 6-5 receiver Landon Smith for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bears were limited to 107 yards on the ground after running 382 yards in last week’s win over South Laurel. Junior quarterback Ethan Rhymer completed only three of 11 passes for 33 yards with two interceptions.
“You take two guys who do a lot of the catching for us, and they’re on the bench, that took the wind out of our sails,” McCreary said. “I think we had a shot to play a little better, but we put our eggs in the basket on what we would be able to do in the game, then boom-boom, those guys are out of the game. That makes it tough.”
Harlan County drove into Hazard territory on its second possession, thanks to back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties agains the Bulldogs, who were penalized 10 times for 130 yards. The drive ended when senior linebacker Ryan Dean picked off a Rhymer pass at the Hazard 35.
The Bulldogs broke the scoreless tie on their third possession as Pelfrey found Jayvon White for a 14-yard TD pass with 11:15 left in the first half. Mia Rouse hit the first of four extra points for a 7-0 lead.
Harlan County answered with its 14-play drive featuring Jordan, James Ryan Howard and Josh Sergent running behind the Bears’ offensive front, especially on the right side where tackle Connor Blevins and guard Will Cassim controlled the line of scrimmage during the series. Jordan’s touchdown and conversion put the Bears ahead briefly before Johnson took control.
Johnson’s 51-yard run set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Pelfrey to Smith. Rouse’s kick put Hazard back on top, at 14-8 with 2:41 left in the first half.
Johnson needed only one play to score on the next drive as he took a handoff from Pelfrey off a high snap and raced 56 yards for a score. Rouse’s extra point made the score 21-8 with 1:11 left in the half.
After an exchange of punts to start the second half, Pelfrey teamed with Smith for a 29-yard gain to set the stage for Johnson’s 2-yard TD run two plays later. Cassim blocked the extra point try but Hazard led 27-8 with 7:18 to play in the third quarter.
Hank Pelfrey picked off a Rhymer pass 23 seconds later, but Sergent returned the favor three plays later and took it back 47 yards for a touchdown to make the score 27-14 with 5:52 left in the third quarter.
Johnson had several carries in a seven-play scoring drive capped by Logan Thomas’ 5-yard touchdown run with 2:09 to play in the third period. Rouse’s extra point made the score 34-14.
Pelfrey found Smith for a 53-yard scoring strike with 11:10 left in the game to close the scoring for Hazard.
Rhymer found Sergent for an 11-yard gain on Harlan County’s second longest drive of the night, covering 56 yards in 13 plays. The drive was capped by a great catch from Luke Kelly on a 19-yard pass dropped into the corner of the end zone by Rhymer with 5:23 left.
Harlan County (1-1) will go on the road for the first time next week at Whitley County (0-2). Hazard will travel to Breathitt County (2-0) on Friday.

Harlan County sophomore Luke Kelly went over Hazard’s Hank Pelfrey for a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ethan Rhymer on Friday at Coal Miners Memorial Stadium. (Chandra Howard)