Playoff excitement is back in Middlesboro. And second round games don’t get much bigger than tonight’s match-up between the District 7 champion Yellow Jackets and the defending regional champion Somerset Briar Jumpers.
Middlesboro (9-2) made the leap this year from back-to-back 0-fers in district play and 4-7 records, to win that district title in a tie-breaker. Somerset (6-4) battled through injuries much of the year but has won five of their last six games, including a 35-19 win over Middlesboro back on Oct. 25. Tonight’s winner will be the favorite in next week’s regional championship game against either Danville or Prestonsburg.
“Somerset is the best third seed in the state, in my opinion. They’re a good football team that was picked to win this region at the beginning of the year. They’re back healthy now,” Jacket coach Randy Frazier said. “Anytime you play through this district you know you’re going to see those teams again. It wouldn’t shock me if Danville comes out of the other side. It’s a great district to play in and we feel honored that we won the thing.
“Really, this is one of the few regions in the state where you can look at any of the four teams playing and it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them won it. That’s what we’re playing for now, moving on in the playoffs.”
Somerset has won the district and the region in each of the last two years. In the playoffs they’ve had to play district teams a second time on three occasions and each time they won the rematch by a larger margin than they did in the regular season.
“That just goes to show that they do a great job coaching. Coach (Charles) Lucas and his staff do a great job and they get a little confidence and they move on. It’s going to be a tough football game,” Frazier added.
Both teams feature balanced offenses and physical defenses that can get after the quarterback. The Jumpers won the previous meeting by limiting Middlesboro to just 125 yard of total offense. They put up some big plays in the passing game early and then finished off the win with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives on the ground.
It was senior night in Somerset and the team was fired up and playing to possibly improve their playoff seeding. Middlesboro was pretty well assured of winning the district going in and may have taken the Jumpers lightly after watching them lose to Danville.
“We feel like we didn’t play our best game, they didn’t see our best. We’ve watch just about every game they’ve played on film and we feel like we did see their best, that was the best they’ve played to date,” Frazier said. “Hopefully we can narrow that margin and have a shot to win in the fourth quarter.”
Senior receiver Cam Cheuvront leads Somerset with 52 catches for 944 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had his way early in the first game with five catches for 199 yards and two first-half touchdowns.
“We’ve got to contain (Cheuvront). He had about 200 yards receiving in the first half, in the second half we kind of slowed him down. But we can’t let him get behind us and complete the big plays. If we can limit the big plays, then we can have a shot,” Frazier said.
Freshman Jordan Doan was Somerset’s leading rusher with 626 yards and five touchdowns through six games. He’s missed the last four games with a knee injury, but may be able to play tonight. Senior Will Lange saw his first extensive action of the season in last week’s playoff win over Betsy Layne and ran for 69 yards on 11 carries. It was Brycen McWilliams that did most of the damage against the Jackets in the first game with 74 rushing yards and those two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Frazier said it doesn’t matter who is carrying the ball, his team has to do a better job of winning the battle up front.
“Teams that usually win the battle at the line of scrimmage win football games. We didn’t win that battle the last time we played and if we don’t win it (tonight) then we’re going to have a tough time,” he said. “They out-physicalled us up front the last time and we can’t let that happen.”
The Jacket offense has evolved over the course of the season. They’ve shown some spread looks with quarterback Donnie Foister hooking up with outside receivers Austin Poindexter and Jake Brock, but have been at their best behind the power running of backs Ryan Pittman and Seth Barton. Pittman has run for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns while Barton has added 745 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. Pittman left last week’s 44-28 win over Leslie County with an ankle injury and is questionable to play tonight along with tight end Cole Frazier, who aggravated his own ankle injury in that game.
“We’re day-to-day with Cole and Pittman. That’s the two inside linebackers that start plus our tight end and running back,” Coach Frazier said. “We’ve got kids that can step up and get the job done. It’s a matter of those that are out there have to play at 100-percent.”
Junior Major Edwards, who started the season at quarterback before an ankle injury put him on the shelf for a few weeks, ran for 55 yards last week and will take on any carries that Barton can’t handle if Pittman can’t go.
Injuries have taken a toll on the Jackets over the past several weeks. The bad luck started when junior defensive lineman Camre Stephney moved away after his mother took a job in Knoxville. Edwards missed time with that ankle injury, senior linebacker Jason Napier is out for the season with a torn ACL, junior lineman Nick Shoffner broke his arm, and now the other injuries have put Middlesboro’s depth to the test.
“You take the team that started against Bell County the fourth week of the season. We won’t have five or six of those guys on Friday. They’re either out for the year, hurt or moved away. We’ve been evolving there as well, getting kids ready,” Frazier said. “Everybody says we need to play a game like we did against Bell and we do have to play with that type of intensity. But it’s not the same football team.”
In spite of all that the Jackets have outscored their opponents by an average of 39-22 and put up some big numbers along the way. They’ve battled some turnover issues most of the season and have at times been plagued by defensive lapses, so they’re still looking to play their best game.
“I told our kids that if we play as well as we can play then great things will happen for our football team,” Frazier added. “We’re waiting on that game and we sure hope it’s Friday night.”
Tonight’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m.