What a great night last Friday proved to be for the three high school football programs in Bell County.
The young Bell County Bobcats showed that Log Mountain can still be a house of horrors for opposing offenses. Facing a red-hot Corbin team, the Bobcats were staring at a third-place finish in their district with a loss. But for the second time this season Bell County surprised all of the “experts” and played with what coach Wayne Mills called the “heart of a champion.” They shut out the Redhounds and took advantage of a late short field to score the winning touchdown with just 16 seconds to play for a 7-0 win.
Sophomore quarterback Peyton Collett didn’t have a great night throwing the ball, but with the game on the line he found junior Hayden Gilbert for a 35-yard gain down to the Corbin 1-yard line. Collett ran it in from there.
The win improves Bell County to 5-3 on the season and 2-1 in district play. A win at McCreary Central later this week will wrap up the number two seed in Class 3A’s District 4 and the Bobcats will host the first round of the playoffs against the loser of Friday’s Henry County-Elizabethtown game.
The Bobcats don’t set out to finish second in their district, but it’s a nice accomplishment for a team that was thin and inexperienced even before dealing with several injuries. Prior to the season Mills said his team, which starts six sophomores on offense and plays several underclassmen on defense, would experience some growing pains. Those came in the form of early season losses to a very good South Pittsburg, Tenn., team and to the vastly improved Middlesboro Yellow Jackets. The relative inexperience of the Bobcats was a big factor in the game at Wayne County getting out of hand after two big pass plays and an onside kick put the Cardinals in charge.
Does Friday’s win mean the Bobcats are ready to challenge for a regional championship? Probably not, they face the daunting task of travelling to Louisville Central for a second round playoff game and would likely make a return trip to Wayne County if they advance to the third round.
But Mills has Bell County on track to be in position to compete for the district and region next season. And this year’s Bobcats have shown more than once that they’re not going to be limited by what anyone outside the program thinks they can’t do. Just ask Knox Central.
Another terrific story about a team coming into their own is unfolding up in Pineville. Bart Elam took over as the head coach of the Mountain Lions in 2006 and from day one he set a goal of earning a home playoff game. It hadn’t happened since 2000 and the Harlan Green Dragons were always the stumbling block. There have been years when that goal was completely unrealistic and years when Pineville probably should have earned it.
Well, they finally did it on Friday and they did it in emphatic fashion with a 50-0 victory over Harlan. To make the night even more special, it was homecoming at Pineville and the Lions paid tribute before the game to long-time coach and equipment manager Darwin Walters who had passed away earlier this year.
“We have came into this game the favorite a couple of times these eight years and came out with a loss. We’re just happy to get a win,” Elam said after the game. “Our kids, we told them all year to pick somebody to play for besides their self. (Friday) we told them to set all that aside for one night and play for Darwin Walters and I think they did.”
The Lions dominated from the get-go. They limited Harlan to 78 total yards and recovered two fumbles and a live ball on a kickoff. Senior Conner Ford and sophomore Brad Fuson both ran for over 100 yards with Fuson scoring three touchdowns and Ford two. Senior linebacker Matt Hubbard also returned a fumble for a touchdown.
“Some things definitely bounced our way. I don’t know if Darwin was up there helping us out or what, but our kids rolled with it,” Elam added.
Pineville is now sitting at 6-2 on the season and tied with Hazard for first place in Class 1A, District 6. The Lions have gotten great leadership from a group of ten seniors while starting freshmen at quarterback and receiver. They are also mixing in quite a few underclassmen on defense.
“We’ve had a slow progression of improvement for a long time now. This was the next step for our program and we did it with a team that before the season most people probably weren’t giving us a chance to do that,” Elam said. “It’s great to be bringing some excitement back to Pineville football.”
The Lions travel to Hazard on Friday to play for the district championship.
“We all know what Hazard’s got. They’ve probably got the best running back east of 75, he’s a bulldozer type kid with as much speed or more than we’ve got on our team. But we’re going to go play, we don’t have any pressure on us,” the coach said. “We know we’re going to be home for that first playoff game so we’re going to play loose and let what happens happen. Either way we want to try to get better for the playoffs.”
Last, but certainly not least, the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets all but wrapped up their first district championship since 2006 with a 42-17 win at Danville. The only way the Jackets won’t win the district is if they lose to Somerset on Friday and Danville gets upset by Lexington Christian. Middlesboro holds the three-way tie-breaker based on the number of wins by opponents they have beaten.
Even though the Jackets had gone 0-6 during their first two seasons competing in the current Class 2A, District 7, they came into this year with high expectations. That was based mostly on how well last year’s team comprised of mostly sophomores and juniors competed late in the season on the way to a 4-7 finish.
They’ve met those expectations to put together a 7-1 record with a 2-0 mark in district play. Middlesboro has played just one bad game this season, a hard-to-fathom 77-46 loss at Class A Pikeville. Other than that they haven’t allowed more than 20 points to any team and have won every game by at least two touchdowns.
Being in position to compete for championships is what coach Randy Frazier has been building toward since he was hired four years ago, but he said he hasn’t been just looking at this season.
“We had to play a lot of these kids when they were freshmen and sophomores because we just didn’t have enough older kids that came out. We didn’t go to a youth movement by choice, we had to play young,” he said. “Those kids have worked in the weight room and you can see that making the difference in the last three games. We’ve been a lot stronger in the second half.”
Now a path toward Bowling Green and the state championship game is clear and attainable. The Jackets will likely host Leslie County in the first round of the playoffs with either Somerset or Danville probably coming to Middlesboro for the second round. As long as they win the Jackets would host the regional championship game, likely against the second place team from their district or Prestonsburg. A win there would send MHS to the state semifinals and a trip to the northern Kentucky area where Newport Central Catholic is the favorite to come out of that region.
It’s shaping up to be a very exciting November for all the high school fans in the county.