When you play a field position game, penalties can be the difference in winning and losing. When North Laurel travels to Harlan County, field position will be as valuable as the coal under these Eastern Kentucky hills. The Black Bears will not get fancy. They will push and grind until something breaks. A penalty or turnover against Harlan can sink you. North Laurel coach Chris Larkey knows all about penalties.

With the loss to Perry County Central a week into the past, Larkey’s expression isn’t much better now when he talks about the game. He blames the loss on the team’s penalties, especially the 15-yard variety

“There is nothing you can totally do to take away penalties. You have just got to punish the penalty people and we have done that this week and we are going to keep doing it,” Larkey said. “We lost last week because of penalties. We had over 400 yards of offense and we got beat.”

The penalties resulting from effort and hustle are not the issue. Personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct flags are being dealt with seriously. Larkey would not elaborate except to say it would not be allowed any more.

Despite the loss, and the penalty issue, Larkey said his team has practiced well this week. Even Tuesday during a pouring rain, he liked his team’s focus.

“We were out there drenched and in the mud and the kids loved it,” Larkey said.

It may be good preparation for Friday’s game at Harlan when less than perfect conditions are projected.

While the Jaguars are dealing with a tough district loss, Harlan County is coming off a big district win. The Black Bears upset once-beaten Letcher County 12-7. Harlan County coach Tom Larkey said he didn’t think many people expected his team to win.

“I don’t know very many people that would have. You would have to be a die-hard Black Bear fan,” he said.

Tom Larkey said it was probably the biggest win in his two years at Harlan County. It is a rivalry for Harlan that compares to North Laurel versus South Laurel. Tom Larkey will have another big game this week when he coaches against his long-time assistant coach and son.

“I would rather not be facing him to be honest with you. I try to look at it as coaching against North Laurel, not Chris,” he said.

What Harlan County will try to do is no secret to Tom Larkey’s son or anyone else that has followed his coaching career.

“They are going to simply line up and try to run over top of us,” Chris Larkey said. “It has worked for as many years as I know. If you can’t stop them, then why stop doing what you are good at.”

Harlan opened the season with a 35-8 loss to Southwestern in the Ray Correll Bowl in Somerset. It was not a good start for the a Harlan team that allowed 270 yards rushing and managed only 159 total yards themselves. Harlan attempted three passes with no completions and one interception. It may have helped Southwestern to have one game under their belt, while it was the season opener for the Black Bears.

The Warriors scored most of their points when the Harlan County defense was not on the field, including a kick return and an interception return.

“They got all of their points in the first half and Harlan shut them out in the second half,” Chris Larkey said.

Harlan got untracked in week No. 2 with a 44-21 win over Lee County (VA). Although Harlan still didn’t complete a pass, this time they didn’t need to. Harlan rushed for 415 yards with two runners topping 100 yards. T.J. Green rushed for 130 yards and three touchdowns. Marcus McMillain added a pair of touchdowns and 128 yards.

“They don’t do anything fancy. They just test your manhood and see how tough you are,” Chris Larkey said. “He’s got a good offensive line and some good running backs, so why throw it when you don’t have to.”

Harlan picked up a road win with a 29-8 drubbing of Leslie County. McMillain topped 100 yards again with 118 and a touchdown. Green scored a pair of touchdowns and finished with 84 yards.

Harlan’s winning streak reached three games with a 35-0 win over Powell Valley (VA). This time it was Green’s turn to shine with 107 yards. Sophomore Cody Taylor carried the ball 24 times, which was more than he totaled in the first three games and responded with 125 yards. Harlan’s passing game also showed signs of life with Williamson completing 5-of-6 passes for 91 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Harlan offense couldn’t find its stride in a 36-8 loss to Whitley County. Much like in the opening loss to Southwestern, Harlan could not stop the running game. Whitley County rushed for 340 yards. Harlan was also held without a 100-yard rusher for the first time.

“They have lost to two very good football teams. It’s not like they are losing to nobodies,” Chris Larkey said. The two teams that have beaten Harlan County do share the ability to run the ball.

Harlan got back on track with a big district win last week against Letcher County Central. Harlan rushed for 319 yards with Green and McMillain again topping the 100-yard mark.

“They ran right down Letcher’s throat and it was a field position game for them,” Chris Larkey said. “They kept Letcher pinned back and the clock running. Letcher eventually ran out of time.”

Harlan averages 265 yards per game on the ground. Green’s 563 yards and seven touchdowns are just ahead of teammate McMillain with 505 yards and five touchdowns.

“Green is a tough kid, a smart kid,” Chris Larkey said. “He’s the leader by far on their football team.”

Linebacker Tucker Lewis leads the teams with 40 tackles, followed by Jordan Calon with 37.

“They are going to give us problems on defense,” Chris Larkey said. “I hope we can keep the score low because we’re not going to score 50 points this week. We’re not going to score 30 points this week. It’s going to be a tough football game,” Chris Larkey said.

Instead he expects his team to face a lot of second and third-and-long situations.

“I think the team that wins will be the one that has the fewest turnovers, or capitalizes on turnovers, and has the fewest penalties,” Chris Larkey said. “It’s going to be a field position game.”

Mitch Howard can be reached at mhoward@sentinel-echo.com.

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