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Rhymer at HCHS to sign Baker, Kelly

Reflecting on his school days, all the way back to his time as a Cranks Knight just before the tiny elementary school closed, Matt Rhymer told a gathering at Harlan County High School that he was proud of his Harlan County heritage just before he added two members of the HCHS football team to his squad at the University of the Cumberlands.

“This is home to me,” Rhymer said. “My family is still here and all my roots are here. It’s exciting to coach kids from here and see them get an education and grow as a person and student.”

Offensive lineman Andrew Baker and kicker Marcus Kelly, both Associated Press honorable mention all-state selections earlier in the week, signed to continue their football careers at the University of the Cumberlands in a ceremony last week at Harlan County High School.

Baker, at 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds, was a three-year starter at tackle for the Bears and anchored an offensive front that had plenty of success opening holes for Tyrese Simmons and Quintin Mickens, among others, helping Harlan County earn its first Region 4 title since 2012 and the third in school history. Baker was joined on the offensive front by Robert Burgan, Noah Wood, Luke Holbrook, Elisha Smallwood and Ethan Baird.

“We had great teamwork, which is crucial for an offensive line to be successful. A lot of people were down on us as a team, so it was really exciting to be able to win the region and advance to the state semifinals,” Baker said.

Baker expects to shift to guard or center on the collegiate level.

“I’ve had experience with all three positions on the offensive line, mainly tackle and guard. I think I can make the adjustment,” he said. “I’m extremely excited to be able to play four more years of football. It’s a blessing.”

“He has size and athleticism and finishes blocks,” Rhymer said. “He blocks down field really well and plays the game really hard. We like to run the football, so he will be great for us. He’s a great student and player and everything we’re looking for. We lost a couple of offensive lineman to graduation, so he can come in and compete.”

“Baker was a force on the offensive line the last three years,” Harlan County coach Eddie Creech said. “He had a perfect combination of size, strength and aggression. I really felt he took his game to another level his senior year. I look for him to have a super collegiate career as a student and player. He was ‘Hawg Nasty’ this past season.”

Kelly, in addition to being the school’s top soccer player in the first year of the program, gave Harlan County one of the state’s best kicking games as he hit 33 extra points and connected on eight field goals, in addition to helping win the field position battle with numerous kickoffs into the end zone.

“Our kicker (Joe Rose) was a senior, so it was a big need for us,” Rhymer said. “He’s a great student, player and kid, and I think he will have a great career. He will compete for playing time. He has a strong leg and it will get better in college. He will spend more time training and will grow and develop.”

“Marcus was an advantage and weapon most teams don’t usually have the luxury of having,” Creech said. “He hit four field goals of 40 yards or more. That is unheard of for most eastern Kentucky teams. Coach (Chad) Wood really brought him along well over the past three years. He was just as big of an advantage for our defense with his touchbacks.”

“This is really exciting and an honor to get a scholarship to play,” Kelly said. “My senior season was the best I ever had. I felt really good about it. They told me I had a chance to be the starting kicker.”

Former Harlan coach J.B. Donahue, now an assistant on Rhymer’s staff, was also in attendance for the signings. Rhymer said he hopes to continue building the connection between his program and his home county.

“I’m excited about what coach Creech is doing here and what he stands for,” Rhymer said. “We think the same way about a lot of things and I’m thankful he’s the coach here. He’s doing a great job.”