By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
For the second straight year, North Laurel has earned a spot in the playoffs. Last year the Jaguars fell to Whitley County 41-20. This year the Jaguars want to do more than make an appearance.
“You want to have some success in the playoffs. The regular season doesn’t matter. Some people say we’ve had a good season so far, but they don’t understand there is more to it than just the season,” North Laurel coach Chris Larkey said.
North Laurel has already tied the school record with eight wins. Now they will try to do something no other North Laurel team has done, win a playoff game.
“It’s not that you want to be the first. It’s just that you want to get one for the kids. It’s for the school. It’s for the football program. We want to establish something for the future,” Larkey said.
The Commodores bring an even 5-5 record into the matchup, but gained home field advantage by finishing second to Harlan County in their district. Perry County has lost just one game at home this season, 35-17 to Tates Creek. Perry Central has a new stadium this season with a turf field. Although Larkey hasn’t seen it in person, he said it looks on film like Whitley County’s stadium.
The Jaguars played on turf at Madison Southern and have gotten a chance this week to practice at Union College. But it isn’t the setting that concerns Larkey as much as the reputation for games being called in the home team’s favor.
“I just hope it’s a fair-called football game to give our kids a fighting chance,” Larkey said.
North Laurel and Perry Central share just one common opponent. Perry County topped Clay County 21-0 in its season opener. North Laurel pulled away late for a 33-6 win over Clay County.
The Commodores most impressive win may have been a 67-22 thumping of Whitley County. Perry Central has shown they can score some points with 47 against Rockcastle County and 34 against Pike County Central. They have also been held to 12 points or less in four of their five losses, although those have come against powerhouses such as Harlan County, Johnson Central, and Corbin.
“They do have a pretty good athletic football team. They’ve been beaten by some good teams,” Larkey said.
Those teams have not used a standard blueprint to beat the Commodores. It has been more about matchups and personnel. The Jaguars are not as fast as Tates Creek and not as big as Harlan County or Johnson Central.
“It’s going to be a tough football game. A lot of people think we can just go in there and win, but we’re not the type of team that can overlook anybody,” Larkey said.
The Commodores have gotten most of their yards on the ground this season behind the running of Devan Brewer and Nathan Pray. Both are just under 800 yards for the season.
Pray has completed just over half of his 140 passes for 10 touchdowns and 914 yards. Pray is not expected to be at quarterback against North Laurel.
John Toomer is the team’s leading receiver with 41 catches and six touchdowns. He is the son of former University of Kentucky basketball player Carlos Toomer.
Seth Napier started the year at quarterback but was injured in practice the week following the season opener. He returned to the starting lineup last week and should start against the Jaguars. Pray played quarterback while Napier was out. Pray had just two days of practice at quarterback before making his first start against a tough Corbin defense. Now Pray will return to receiver, where he led the team with almost 900 yards receiving last year.
“They have two great wide receivers out there now and a quarterback that has always played there,” Larkey said. “I think our defensive backs are going to have to play the game of their life.”
When the Commodores aren’t throwing the ball they are handing it off to 6-foot-2, 200-plus pound running back Devan Brewer.
“We can’t get in a scoring match because we don’t have that kind of offense. Our defense will have to play strong,” Larkey said.
North Laurel knows a lot about switching out quarterbacks. Michael Nelson missed three games in the middle of the season. He returned against South Laurel only to reinjure his ankle and miss last week’s game at Grant County.. Nelson is still a game-time decision and has not been able to practice. Hagen Hodges has filled in well, including starts against the two best teams on the North Laurel schedule, Pulaski County and Madison Southern.
“He’s done a great job for us. He’s led us to three wins at quarterback. He’s a good kid and he’s one a totally trust running the offense,” Larkey said.
Regardless of who is at quarterback, the North Laurel game plan changes little.
“Our kids like to run the ball and we’re not going to change,” Larkey said. “We want 3-4 yards and run 30 seconds off the clock to keep the ball away from them.”