The Middlesboro Yellow Jackets start what they hope will be a deep run in the Class 2A playoffs on Friday as they welcome a familiar foe in Leslie County to Lee Majors Field.
The Eagles and Jackets were district rivals for several years and were originally both placed in District 7 during the 2011 realignment. Both teams petitioned to be moved because of travel, but the KHSAA only approved Leslie’s request to switch to District 8.
In 2011 Leslie County put together a surprisingly strong season and finished first in their district. They opened the playoffs with a 35-12 win over the Jackets.
The roles are reversed this season with Middlesboro (8-2) coming in as the top seed from District 7 while the Eagles (3-7) are the four seed.
All signs are pointing toward a second round rematch between MHS and Somerset that should go a long way toward determining the regional champion. But Jacket coach Randy Frazier says his team isn’t looking past Leslie County.
“Two years ago we went to Leslie County and they knocked us out of the playoffs. That’s what we’ve emphasized all week long, we can’t look past anybody,” he said. “We have no idea what that district is like, nobody in our district has played them. Two short years ago that team knocked us out in the first round and most of our kids were there. Leslie is going to come in here like their playing for a state championship and we’ve got to do the same.”
There are some similarities to this year’s Eagle team and last year’s Middlesboro squad in that Leslie has a large group of sophomores that see significant playing time. Headlining that group is quarterback Kevin Whitaker.
Leslie County has wins this season over Harlan, Knott County Central and McCreary Central. They’ve played pretty well in close losses to Shelby Valley (7 points), Clay County (12 points) and South Laurel (4 points). Overall they’ve been outscored by an average margin of 20.9 to 32.5.
“They throw the ball all over the place and that’s been our Achilles’ heel at times. The teams that have hurt us, Pikeville and Somerset, they threw the ball successfully,” Frazier said. “Defending the pass is something that we’ve got to concentrate on and get better at. That’s been our main emphasis in (Wednesday’s) practice.
“They’re trying to two-platoon and they’ve got a bunch of kids out. We feel good about our offense scoring points. Team-wise we just can’t blow any assignments and we have to go right at them like we did last week.”
Middlesboro is averaging 38.2 points per game while allowing 22.3. The Jackets have a balanced offense, but could lean on the hard-running tandem of junior backs Ryan Pittman and Seth Barton behind a line that should win the battle up front. Pittman has run for 1262 yards and 12 touchdowns on 146 carries while Barton has 712 yards and 15 touchdowns on 95 carries this season.
Senior quarterback Donnie Foister has completed 66 of 94 passes for 940 yards and 8 touchdowns with 6 interceptions. Junior Major Edwards is 30 of 66 passing for 469 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions. Both could see time again this week depending on the flow of the game.
Stats weren’t available for the Eagles, but Whitaker keys their passing game and among his favorite targets are junior James Brock and senior Stefan Lewis.
Frazier said that it’s important for his team to not turn the ball over. They played their first turnover-free game in last week’s 55-26 win over Lynn Camp.
“If our offense doesn’t turn it over and our defense understands what we’ve got to get done we feel good about it,” he said.
Cole Frazier is very questionable after turning an ankle in last week’s game. He’s unlikely to play at linebacker or tight end, but may be available to handle punting duties in the game. The Jackets will also be without Jason Napier and Nick Shoffner with injuries and senior receiver/linebacker Austin Poindexter will finish serving his two-game suspension.
“Other than that everybody is good other than the kids we’ve lost for the season. It’s just a matter of the next guy stepping in there and getting the job done and that’s what we expect them to do,” Coach Frazier said. “I really hate it for (Cole), but that’s why we tell our kids each day they better play each down like it’s their last because you don’t know when it’s going to be.”
The Jackets were poised to have a successful season this year and so far they’re right on track. Friday, they’ll be looking for their first playoff win since Frazier’s first year in 2010. That 47-8 win over Morgan County was also the last time the Jackets had a home playoff game. The coach added that he likes what he’s seen from his team as far as ramping up their intensity.
“A lot of people don’t understand that. This group is looking for their first playoff win and I think they’re hungry for it. We’re all here working for it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how they’re going to react because the last two years we’ve gotten beat in the first round. That’s another one of our goals and we’re going to do our best to get over that hurdle Friday night.”
The game is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m.