When Middlesboro and Bell County met in last year’s City/County Bowl, the electricity in the air was palpable. The intensity of this rivalry created an atmosphere that even surpasses what you find in the playoffs.
The Yellow Jackets rode that emotion in the early going and were hanging with the Bobcats, down just 21-14 with the ball in the second quarter. But Bell got a big interception from Cory Davenport to turn the momentum and went on to romp 63-20.
This year the City/County Bowl moves to Log Mountain and Friday night we’ll find out if that intensity was a product of the teams’ first meeting in eight years. Once again the Bobcats are considered a heavy favorite, but rivalry games tend to bring out the best in both teams and anything can happen.
“Our whole thing is: you can’t take anything for granted. When you start taking anyone for granted, you’re going to go home with a loss,” Bell coach Wayne Mills said. “Our kids understand what this game means and we’re not going to overlook Middlesboro by any means. We feel like they’ve got a really good football team, they’ve got nice backs, they’re big up front and you can tell they’ve been in the weight room. We’ve got a big game this week.”
Both teams come in at 1-1 and Jacket coach Randy Frazier said that off the field it’s a friendly rivalry between the schools.
“This is our second year back playing them and it is a rivalry game. All the kids know each other and most of them are friends. We’ve got friends up there coaching, but it is a rivalry game and you have to play hard,” he said.
Frazier also acknowledged that the Jackets have a tough test in front of them.
“They’re a strong team, a big team, you could look up and they’ll be playing in the regional finals and even in the state. It’s definitely the toughest game on our schedule,” he said. “We’re trying to get to that level and I feel like we’re working that way with a bunch of young kids. I told somebody today, it’s their 16 seniors against our 18 sophomores — we sprinkle a few juniors in there and one senior. So, it’s a tough football game.
“But when it becomes a rivalry game you can take a lot of that out of it. Our kids are excited about it, it’s the City/County Bowl and those guys do a wonderful job. If we can keep it close, you never know what can happen.”
The Bobcats bring one of the top rushing attacks in the state, led by the senior tandem of Ryan Collett and Jonathan Polly. Bell will be without senior quarterback Corey Oslonian, who suffered a knee injury last week. Freshman Peyton Collett will be starting under center.
“I expect (Oslonian) to be out just a couple weeks. We haven’t got the MRI results yet so we’re hoping his ACL is not blown,” Mills said. “Everybody has confidence in Peyton, he got a lot of work this summer when Osi dealt with a hip pointer. I always tell him with a name like Peyton, surely you can play quarterback.”
Frazier said the key for the Jackets is containing that running game. A difficult task as Bell’s offensive line features seniors Tan Hudson (6-6, 320), Hunter Marcum (6-4, 270) and Jonathan Burnett (6-3, 230).
“We’re going to have to stop Collett and Polly back there, they’re two of the top backs in the state and you never know which one is going to get it. You’re going to have to play mistake-free football and hit your assignments,” he said. “It’s really hard to stop them with that offensive line they’ve got — 6-6, 300 pounds. They’re a lot bigger than we are up front, but we feel like our D-line might be a little faster. So we’re going to try and use our quickness and speed and stay with it.”
Middlesboro will be without sophomore Camre Stephney up front. He’s dealing with a knee injury of his own and will hopefully be back within another week or two. Junior Tyler Prater, sophomore Matt Schneider and freshman Daniel Webb lead the Jackets up front. MHS also has a pair of very active young linebackers in Tyler Yoakum and Ryan Pittman who will be key to their containing the run.
When the Jackets have the ball, they rely on the quickness of wing backs Jake Brock, Seth Barton, Pittman and Donnie Foister. Sophomore Parker Uhl is also dangerous and fast at the fullback position. Sophomore quarterback Major Edwards will be back in the starting lineup after setting out last week’s win at Hancock County, Tenn., with sore ribs.
Bell faced two of the state’s top passing attacks in the first two weeks and performed well against both. The run defense will be key and that part of the Bobcat defense is led by senior linebackers D.J. Warwick and Corey Lee. Ends Jeffrey Saylor and Dylan Cox will also have a lot of responsibility defending Middlesboro’s Wing-T.
Mills said his Bobcats are aware of what Middlesboro wants to do, but haven’t put in many changes for this week’s game.
“I feel like they’re solid. This week has just been about ourselves. We felt like last week there were some things we just didn’t do well,” he said. “You scheme for teams every week, but the biggest thing is we just have to do what we do. Middlesboro is going to do what they do, there’s no secrets between the two of us. It’s just going to be who executes and plays good on special teams that will come out with the victory.”
Frazier said that win or lose, he wants his team to use Friday’s game to get better.
“We’re excited about playing the game and it’s just a matter of going up there and getting after it,” he said. “We’re still building what we want here, but I think this year we’ve taken a big step. We love coaching our kids and they listen to us. Every year is another step and this is just a game in taking that step.”
In addition to being the City/County Bowl — Friday’s action kicks off with Pineville taking on Williamsburg at 6 p.m. — this is also the home opener for the Bobcats. That’s another reason Mills says his team will be ready to play.
“Our kids have been anticipating coming home. We’ve had two long trips to Lexington and coming back on the bus the other night they said: ‘Coach, we’re just glad to get back home,’” he said. “We’ll have our home crowd behind us and we’ll get to play on grass. I think they’re tired of playing on turf. We’re just trying to get ready and Friday can’t get here soon enough.”
The Middlesboro-Bell game is scheduled for an 8 p.m. kick off, but it will probably be about 9:30 p.m. before Pineville and Williamsburg finish their game, leave the field, and the Jackets and Bobcats complete their pre-game and stretching routines.