Big plays send Clay to victory at HC in district opener


Kim Henson

Harlan County running back Thomas Jordan followed a block from Josh Sergent in a district clash Friday against Clay County. Jordan ran for 85 yards in the Bears’ 42-20 loss.

For the first time since Harlan County High School opened 15 years ago, the Clay County Tigers left Harlan both alive and victorious as they used a big-play offense to win 46-20 on Friday.
Clay County scored on all five possessions in the first half to build a 30-6 lead, then held off a comeback by the Bears in the second half to earn its second straight win over HCHS and the first on Harlan County’s home field.
Junior quarterback Tate Rice had a second straight huge night against the Bears as he completed 14 of 17 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns, all to junior receiver Tyson Wagers, who had five catches for 123 yards and started the night with a 75-yard kickoff return.
Harlan County fell to 3-3 with the loss and watched a two-game winning streak come to an end with a return to many of the same problems that hurt the Bears last year, mainly poor tackling.
“I wish I had an excuse for us, but I don’t, except that we weren’t emotionally sky high to play this game like I thought we would be,” Harlan County coach Amos McCreary said. “When that happens, you miss tackles. I wish I could sugar-coat it, but there is no way I can.
“They got a big play right off the bat on the kickoff and that kind of set the tone. We just didn’t answer the call. That’s the thing. We had a few chances to make plays and didn’t, then the momentum just goes all in their way. We dropped a few that were touchdowns and then we had someone open and throw it a little too far. Then your momentum is just history.”
The Bears also hurt themselves with mistakes, drawing 17 penalties for 169 yards.
“I told them we just can’t do that. That is so undisciplined,” McCreary said. “We were up there jumping off-sides six times tonight. We talk about that and go over it in practice and we aren’t correcting it. I wish I had answers for them, but I don’t.”
The Black Bears also missed several scoring opportunities through the air, either through dropped passes or missing open receivers. With the Clay defense focused on stopping the Bears’ ground game, junior quarterback Ethan Rhymer three 22 passes, completing seven for 106 yards, all but one to junior receiver Jonah Swanner. Junior tailback Thomas Jordan had another strong performance with 85 yards on 17 carries to lead the HC ground game.
The 4-1 Tigers were effective both on the ground and through the air as junior Lucas Allen was a workhorse with 118 yards on 30 carries.
“We knew they would be tough offensively, but we have to stop them more than that,” McCreary said. “We had two or three chances where we didn’t get touchdowns.”
After Wagers’ kickoff return, the Bears answered with an eight-play drive aided by a pass interference call on a ball intended for Swanner. Jordan went in from the 6 with 7:50 left in the first quarter to tie the game at 6.
With Allen and Rice providing a balanced attack, the Tigers had scoring drives of nine and 10 plays that both ended with Allen runs for an 18-6 lead.
Harlan County appeared to have a stop midway through the second quarter as Clay faced a fourth-and-five from its 17, but the Tigers gambled and Rice found Zach Saylor for an 8-yard gain. Rice completed an 11-play drive when he found Wagers, who turned a short pass into a 33-yard touchdown with 1:17 left in the half.
After forcing a punt, the Tigers scored once more with Rice and Wagers teaming up for a 45-yard TD with 38 seconds left for a 30-6 lead.
Rhymer completed a 35-yard pass to Swanner just before halftime, but the Bears ran out of time.
A 34-yard Rice to Wagers TD pushed the lead to 36-6 after HCHS missed a sure touchdown on a dropped pass.
A pass from Rhymer to Swanner covered 34 yards and set up the second Harlan County score on a 3-yard run by Jordan with 6:25 left in the third quarter.
The Bears grabbed the momentum early in the fourth quarter when senior linebacker Josh Sergent recovered a fumble and took it back 55 yards for a touchdown. Swanner’s two-point conversion cut the deficit to 16 with 3:25 left. The Bears got the ball back against on Clay’s first play from scrimmage after the kickoff as Bradley Young recovered a fumble the Clay 35. The Bears gave the ball back when Saylor picked off a Rhymer pass, all but ending Harlan County’s comeback hopes.
Jayden Woods capped a 12-play, 95-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 2:21 left.
Harlan County (3-3) returns to action Friday at Letcher Central. Clay County (4-1) will play host to Johnson Central on Friday.




Harlan County received Jonah Swanner battled to break free from Clay County’s Jayden Woods in Friday’s district clash. (Kim Henson)