By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
With almost 75 years of combined football coaching experience, North Middle’s Dusty Carloftis and Harold Robinson have seen just about everything. They added another page to a lengthy scrapbook last week as the North Middle eighth grade team wrapped up their first undefeated regular season with a 20-8 win over Corbin.
“I knew they had it in them,” Carloftis said.
Carloftis and Robinson saw signs of how good this team could be in their first scrimmage. The second scrimmage didn’t go as well. Season opener against Rockcastle County wasn’t looking good either with the Jaguars trailing 26-12 with less than 6 minutes in the game. North Laurel rallied for a 34-32 win.
“I said right then, this bunch has got it,” Carloftis said.
There would be other challenges along the way, including a 16-12 win over Meece and a 20-12 nail biter with Whitley County.
There have been a lot of good middle school teams at North Laurel, but this is the first to go through the regular season undefeated. That’s because it takes more than talent to win every game.
“We’ve got good leadership and they are gamers,” Carloftis said.
Although it sometimes drives a coach crazy to continually try to reach a team in practice with little success. It was a fact Carloftis and Robinson would learn to accept.
“We did have concerns in the beginning, but it was like these guys show up to play. They go pretty hard in practice, but I would rather them show up on game night,” Carloftis said. “They play hard and they don’t quit. They don’t get discouraged and they encourage each other. That’s their biggest strength.”
Last year as seventh graders this same group won the regular season conference title, but lost in the championship game to Corbin. They already had this year’s rematch marked on their calendar.
“It seems to me like we are getting better and better. That’s what you want. We’re playing a whole different type of ball now. We don’t even look the same. Our blocking is better, our tackling is better.”
To say this is a memorable season for Carloftis and Robinson is a statement that grows in impact when you put it in perspective. Carloftis has been coaching for 31 years. The last 13 years have been at North Middle. Robinson has 43 years of coaching experience, including some memorable years when Laurel County’s only middle school was located in what is now London Elementary. Robinson includes this year’s team with the top three he has ever coached.
There was a group at London that included Buddy Blair, father of current North Laurel High School standout Gabe Blair, that went unbeaten two straight years. He also remembers a power house team that included Ronnie Combs and Jonathan Sizemore. There was another strong team led by Ryan Durham.
Carloftis said he has seen five or six really strong teams at North Middle, but none finished a regular season without a loss.
“Sometimes it just comes down to who you are playing. We’ve had a tough schedule. I thought it was extremely tough. I said at the beginning of the year we could end up 0-2 right off the bat,” Carloftis said.
The Jaguars running game has been solid all season and one of their strengths. Carloftis said whoever is called on to run will run hard and hit the hole hard.
“We do have some team speed. Any of my backs can go a pretty good distance and if you give them a crack they will hit it,” Carloftis said. “We’ve got good team defensive speed. The defense is getting better and better every game.”
Carloftis rated the season finale over Corbin as an almost flawless defensive game. The Redhounds scored on a kick return and then struggled to cross midfield again. Only once did they make it to the 35 yard line.
“Our linebackers make a lot of plays. Our secondary comes up and makes plays and our linemen. It’s gang tackling. It’s what I call a total team effort,” Carloftis said.
Clay County will play at North Laurel Thursday at 6 p.m. in the first round of the playoffs. A win there will allow North Laurel to host the conference finals on Oct. 7. The quick turnaround on games is because the state playoffs start Oct. 12.