Prep Football: Lincoln County ready for a physical Harlan County squad in Class AAAAA playoffs
Lincoln County¿s Connor Patterson, left, will test the Harlan County defense Friday when the Patriots open the Class AAAAA playoffs for the seconds straight season against Harlan County. (Nancy Leedy / October 31, 2012)
The Harlan County team that Lincoln County faces Friday in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs looks very much like the one that eliminated the Patriots last year to Lincoln coach Mike Settles.
Many of the Black Bears’ key players from last season have moved on, but Settles said others have stepped up to make them the same type of powerful, physical team, one that drives the No. 1 rushing attack in Kentucky.
“We’ve got to be ready for a physical game,” Settles said. “Last year they were the most physical team we played.”
Too physical for Lincoln, which lost 55-27 in a second-round game. Now the Patriots (5-5) are preparing to take another swing at the Black Bears (8-2), this time with an extra week to prepare following an open date in the final week of the regular season.
“Having two weeks to prepare for Harlan is great,” Settles said. “Having that open date going into the playoffs benefits us, because we’re able to not only physically get reps but to mentally prepare for that type of atmosphere.”
Lincoln will need that preparation against a team that Settles said is one of the best in playoff bracket.
“They’re well-coached, their players play extremely hard,” he said. “What you see is what you get. They know what they do well and are confident in what they do.”
Harlan is younger this year than last, with juniors occupying many key positions, but Settles said that seems to make little difference.
“We feel like they’re very similar to what they did last year, and I think that’s what contributed a lot to their success,” he said. “Coach (Tom) Larkey has done a nice job and established a solid program.”
Larkey, the former Rockcastle County coach, has led the Black Bears to at least eight wins in each of the five seasons since the school opened.
The Black Bears win with a powerful ground game that has averaged 379 yards per game this season. They have run the ball on 92 percent of their offensive plays, leading to an average of 39.4 points per game.
Jake Middleton, Harlan’s No. 2 rusher last season with 1,420 yards and 10 touchdowns, has surpassed those totals this fall, finishing the regular season with 1,757 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“He’s a very productive back. He takes advantage of any size hole,” Settles said.
Settles said he was also impressed with running back-cornerback Treyvon Long (380 yards, five TDs), who had a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and two interceptions last week in Harlan’s first-ever win over Bell County.
Then there is fullback-inside linebacker Carson Whitehead (134 yards, five TDs on offense; 159 tackles, four fumble recoveries on defense), whom Settles said stood out to him as the team’s most physical player on both sides of the ball.
Settles said Harlan is strong on both the offensive and defensive lines, and he said one of the strongest is 6-2, 245-pound defensive lineman Zachary Caldwell.
“He’s only a sophomore, but he’s one of their best linemen up front. He doesn’t just hit you, he hits and drives,” Settles said.
Lincoln, which has scored 27 points per game and allowed 28 per game, has relied on the run this season, averaging 209 rushing yards and 274 yards overall on offense.
Leading rusher Logan Martin has 695 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Marvin Robinson has 512 yards and seven touchdowns in six games.
Harlan’s defense has allowed only 96 rushing yards per game, and opponents are averaging 18.8 points and 199 yards against the Black Bears.
Bell managed 340 yards but still lost 40-34 to Harlan in a game that Settles said was fun to watch.
“It was a physical game. It was impressive to watch and fun to break down,” he said.
Harlan, which had played on the former Cawood field since the school opened, christened its new Coal Miners Memorial Stadium with that game, which drew a crowd of more than 5,000. Lincoln will be the second opponent in the new stadium, which features an artificial turf surface, a Jumbotron-type screen and large grandstands behind both sidelines.
“It’s a great opportunity for our kids, and I hope they enjoy the moments,” Settles said.
This will be the first time many of the Patriots will experience the postseason from inside the lines.
“It’s a special feeling to play in the postseason, and our kids are excited and our coaches are excited,” Settles said. “We know we are up for a great challenge. It’s fun just to be able to have an opportunity to play in a game like this.
“Our kids have been working extremely hard this year. We’ve been inconsistent at times, but now we’re rewarded with the opportunity to play in the playoffs, and hopefully we can take advantage of that opportunity.”