Two schools that mirror each other on a fast rise to success will meet in the Class 5A state semi-final Friday night in Kentucky. Cooper and Harlan County are in their fifth seasons of football. Both have built from the ground up.
Haraln County High School came about when Cawood, Evarts and Cumberland merged. Black Bears head coach Tom Larkey has won almost 300 at the high school level and built Rockcastle County into a perennial power. He returned home to his roots to start the HCHS program that has been built on dedication in the weight room and on the field.
Cooper evolved and took kids from the Ryle and Conner school districts. The 2012 Jaguars are reaching new heights each week under Randy Borchers, who has been molding this program since day one of its existence. The scoreboard may say differently come the end of the fourth quarter but there will be no losers for fans and boosters of these football teams on Friday night. Their accomplishments this fall have exceeded everyone's expectations.
COOPER JAGUARS (12-1) at HARLAN COUNTY (12-0)
Site: Coal Miners' Memorial Stadium, Needham Saylor Field – Harlan County HS
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Cooper quarterback Tyler Morris has given way to AJ Collins for top billing on the marquee for the Jaguars. Collins has been rock solid in the postseason, averaging 190 yards with 10 of his 19 touchdowns on the ground this season in three post-season tilts. Morris has done what he does best in the playoff – letting the game come to him. The senior-signal-caller has been excellent at controlling the game and does not have a turnover in three November games. On defense, lineman Dustin Mitchell has stepped up his play with 4.5 of his 9.5 sacks in the playoffs. Classmate Taylor Centers has even been even better with 6.0 of his 12.0 sacks on the year in the postseason.
As Jake Middleton goes, so goes the Haraln County offense. The senior has run for 2,090 yards with 29 rushing touchdowns. The Black Bears averaged 375 yards per contest during the regular season and at 368 yards for the postseason. Treyvon long and Cole Wilson spell Middleton. The duo has combined for 1,296 yards and 14 scores on the ground. Carson Whitehead is a tackling machine for the defense. He has an eye-popping 179 total tackles. Middleton, Long and Wilson are also integral parts on that side of the ball for the Black Bears.
TEAM TRENDS: Harlan County has won eight in a row. The Black Bears are sitting on 11 victories for the third straight year. Cooper is in the midst of their most prolific scoring run in school history. The Jaguars have averaged 43.0 over the last five tilts. It is the most productive scoring stretch the program has ever seen.
COOPER'S KEYS TO VICTORY: Third down will be the most important play of the night on both sides of the ball for the visitors. The defense can ill-afford to let HCHS keep drives alive. The Black Bear size and strength has worn down foes all year. The offense needs to do their share by converting third downs and keeping the home team off the field. Unlike last week's opponent, Franklin County, who liked to throw the ball which can stop the clock on incomplete passes, Harlan County wants to keep the ball moving and out of Coopers hands.
HARLAN COUNTY'S KEYS TO VICTORY: Chewing ups yards with the ground game will enable the Black Bears to eat up the clock. Running the football will be their biggest ally on Friday night. Harlan County should also use the long bus ride by Cooper to their advantage. Catching the jaguars off guard via a trick play or long pass early could keep the opponents back on their heels and reeling to recover.
PREDICTION: HARLAN COUNTY 28, COOPER 27
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