Bears open season with rout of Ashland


Chris Jones

Senior running back Christian Hall scored two touchdowns in the Black Bears’ 49-28 win Saturday over visiting Ashland Blazer.

When a 28-point lead was cut to 14 in a six-minute span of the third quarter, Harlan County fans in attendance Saturday at Coal Miners Memorial Stadium had to wonder if this could be a repeat of a season ago when the Black Bears made a habit of letting games get away in the fourth quarter on the way to a 4-7 season.

The Black Bears responded with two straight touchdowns on the way to perhaps the program’s most important win since the 2013 playoffs as they knocked off visiting Ashland Blazer, the fourth-ranked team in the state in 4A preseason polls, 49-21 in the season opener for both teams.

Harlan County dominated the game on both sides of the line of scrimmage, rolling up 316 rushing hards as seniors Tyrese Simmons and Quinten Mickens each topped the 100-yard mark.

“Our kids really hit the weightroom this offseason. We wanted to get more physical this season and run right at people,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “Our offensive line set the tone tonight.”

“They are big and strong and say here we come, stop us if you can,” added Ashland coach Tony Love. “They are a senior-dominated team and they can play. They were cranked up and focused and did a great job. I’m proud our kids didn’t quit. There were some things that slipped past us. It wasn’t an effort thing, so we can build from that.”

Junior quarterback Braxton Ratliff was under constant pressure in the first half as he was sacked three times and hurried several others before sparking a comeback in the fourth quarter after Harlan County had built a 35-7 lead. Ratliff completed touchdown passes to Aroq Colburn and Issac Caines to cut the deficit to 14 and had the ball back early in the fourth quarter when Mickens made the play of the game, turning the momentum back to Harlan County when he picked off a pass and returned it 11 yards for a touchdown.

“The kid made a great play,” Love said.

After another interception, this one by senior linebacker Caleb Carmical, the Bears put the game away with a nine-play, 40-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by Simmons, who finished with 120 yards on 15 carries. Mickens added 114 yards on 18 carries. Senior quarterback Jacob Branson added three carries in the clinching drive.

“If you look at the kids making the plays in the fourth quarter, it was the seniors,” Creech said. “We’ve preached fourth quarter the entire offseason, and I thought we owned the fourth quarter at the end with a defensive score and a long drive on offense.”

Harlan County set the tone for its power ground game on an opening drive that chewed up 71 yards on 13 plays. Simmons had the first three carries, gaining 28 yards. Devon Rodridgues added a 13-yard run on a sweep on a third-and-nine play. Branson picked up a first down inside the 10 and Christian Hall went in from the 1 on third down. Kelly’s extra point gave the Bears a 7-0 lead with 5:18 left in the opening quarter.

The first of three straight Ashland possessions without a first down ended when junior linebacker Garry Henson sacked Braxton Ratliff on third down.

Mickens took over on the Bears’ second possession with runs on 23 and 10 yards before going in from the 2 with 56.3 seconds left in the period. Kelly hit the extra point for a 14-0 lead.

Senior tackle Ethan Baird had two tackles for losses on the Tomcats’ second possession as Ashland closed the first quarter with negative 17 yards of offense. The Bears’ senior line of Robert Burgan, Baird and Jacob Ward continually pushed into the Ashland backfield with Hall and Mickens providing containment at the ends.

Simmons showed off his athleticism when he took a sweep to the right, then reversed field and outran the Ashland defense for a 34-yard touchdown run. Kelly’s third extra point pushed the Bears’ advantage to 21-0 with 9:17 left in the second quarter.

Ashland broke through with a defensive score as Vance Krueger picked up a Carmical fumble and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown with two minutes left in the first half. Blaine Collins hit the extra point.

An 18-yard run by Simmons and a 24-yard reception by Carmical helped the Bears move 50 yards in four plays. Hall scored his second touchdown with a 3-yard run with 51.7 seconds left. Kelly’s fourth extra point gave the Bears a 28-7 halftime lead.

Harlan County (1-0) will face another tough test on Friday at Hazard, last year’s Class A state runner-up and a strong contender for this year’s title.

“Any time you can beat a team ranked fourth in the state in their class it has to be a momentum builder, but we have to be able to build on it and be ready to go to Hazard next week and compete in what I know will be a hornets’ nest,” Creech said.