It’s become a end-of-season tradition and one of the more passionate rivalries in the mountains. Bell County and Harlan County will meet for the fifth straight year this Friday on Log Mountain.
The Bobcats won the first three games in the series with the Black Bears breaking finally breaking through with a win last year in the first game every played at their Coal Miners Memorial Stadium.
“There’s no pressure on either team. I know the fans are in close proximity to each other and it’s always fun, always a big crowd,” Bell coach Wayne Mills said. “It’s a good, intense game that I feel like gets us ready for the playoffs and I think Harlan feels the same way.”
After some early-season struggles the young Bobcats have grown up. They’ve won three of their last four games and enter Friday’s contest at 6-3 and as the number seed from Class 3A’s District 4. As the season has played out, Bell’s losses have come against teams that have done a lot of winning. South Pittsburg is 8-1 and currently ranked first in Tennessee’s Class A poll, Wayne County is 9-0 and ranked second in Kentucky’s Class 3A and Middlesboro is 7-2 and the number one seed out of Class 2A’s District 7.
Harlan County comes in at 6-3 and their three losses have also come against very good teams. The Bears only blemishes are against unbeaten Belfry, the number one team in Class 3A, Johnson Central, ranked third in Class 4A, and Greeneville, ranked second in Tennessee’s Class 4A.
The Bears are one a three-game winning streak, having swept all of their opponents in Class 5A’s District by at least 42 points.
Bell County is the underdog, but it’s a role they have excelled in with unexpected wins over Corbin and at Knox Central earlier this season. Mills said there’s no secret to his team pulling off so-called upsets.
“These are just typical Bell County kids. They’ve got the heart of a champion and I hope that’s true this week. We’ve had a good week of practice and they’re focused. They want to go play well,” he said. “Harlan County has a very good football team, they’re a seasoned team with a lot of seniors. This was their year to go and make a run at a state champion so we know what type of team that’s coming in here to play. We’ve just got to be able to take their best shot, stay in the game and anything can happen.”
While both teams have worked some in recent weeks on improving their passing games and becoming a little more balanced on offense, Friday’s game figures to be an old-fashioned smash-mouth brand of football.
Bell County will have a fresh Austin Caldwell at running back after the junior sat out last week’s big win at McCreary Central. Sophomore Chase Woolum only carried the ball four times in that one and will also be ready to roll in the Bobcat backfield along with fullbacks Corey Swanner and Jake Barton.
The Bears backfield is just as deep. Senior Carson Whitehead leads the team with 836 yards and 10 touchdowns on 120 carries. Junior Fred Massey adds a bit more speed and has 83 rushes for 785 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. Senior quarterback Scotty Bailey has run for 376 yards and seven touchdowns and senior Zach Chitwood has added another 261 yards and three scores on the ground.
Bailey has passed for 318 yards and five touchdowns on the season with senior Cole Wilson the leading Harlan County receiver with seven catches for 158 yards.
The Bears offensive line will have a pretty big size advantage on the Bobcats’ defensive line. Mills said it’s key for his defense to get off the field on third downs.
“We’ve got to give them some different looks. We can’t just line up at the same place every time defensively because that allows those big offensive linemen to lay on us. We’ll show some different fronts from time to time to hopefully confuse their blocking schemes,” he said. “Last year that was the big thing up there, we scored 34 points and they scored 40. We just couldn’t get off the field, every time it would be third and long they’d bust it. We definitely can’t let them sustain long drives on us or it’s going to be a long night and they’ll wear us down.
“They are strong and physical and that’s what they’re going to try and do. Coach (Tom) Larkey has been around a long time, he’s won almost 300 games. He’s going to come in here and try to bully us and we’ll have to be ready for it.”
Friday’s game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. at Bell County High School.