HCHS defense seeks redemption at Clay

Published 9:45 pm Monday, September 23, 2019

After watching Wayne County’s Braedon Slone torch his defense for 203 yards and five touchdowns on only five carries last week in a 55-22 loss at Wayne County, Harlan County’s Eddie Creech is taking a positive approach to another test this week at Clay County against star senior tailback Chandler Hibbard, who has rushed for 1,037 yards and eight touchdowns in five games.

“We have a great opportunity Friday,” said the Harlan County coach. “We will be facing the overall rushing leader in the state of Kentucky. The kid is rushing for 260 yards per game. Clay is big and strong. They have been putting up some crazy numbers offensively.”

Clay (4-1) is off to its best start since 2010. The Tigers knocked off Lincoln County in the first round of the 5A playoffs that season before falling to Pulaski County in the semifinals. Harlan County went on to win its first regional title the next week by defeating the Maroons.

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The Tigers haven’t been a factor throughout the remainder of the decade, at least until now. With Johnson Central the heavy favorite to win District 8 of 4A, Friday’s winner could have the upper hand for second place and a home playoff game. The Bears will be playing their first 4A district game after a decade in 5A.

“We are all 0-0 and anything that has happened up to this point, good or bad, doesn’t matter. It is a brand new season,” Creech said.

Clay opened the season with a 44-20 win over Floyd Central. After a 28-21 loss to Mason County, the Tigers bounced back with a 51-13 win over Lynn Camp followed by a 47-30 victory at Leslie County last week.

A 2006 Clay graduate, Mike Sizemore is in his third season as coach and says experience in the same system is starting to pay off for the Tigers.

“We’ve improved fundamentally and these kids play well together,” he said. “Doing the small things better has allowed us to have some success.”

While Hibbard has earned much of the credit for Clay’s early success, Sizemore said it has been a team effort.

“He runs hard, but we also have a solid group up front,” Sizemore said. “We mirror Harlan County in a lot of ways with big, strong teams that have similar styles.”

Harlan County (4-1) has featured a more balanced attack on offense with running backs Ben Landis, Matt Brown and Tyler Casolari sharing the workload on the ground with receiver Justin Brown and quarterback Jacob Wilson providing a threat through the air.

Junior linebackers Hunter Blevins and Josh Turner have led the HCHS defense with 35 tackles each. Gavin Ewald and Hunter Helton have added 32 and 27 tackles, respectively.

The Bears have been slowed by injuries of late with guard Lake Caudill and defensive end Kobe Burkhart still out with injuries and linebacker Braydon Shanks considered doubtful. Senior center Noah Saylor has battled his way through two games despite an ankle and is considered day to day, according to Creech. Senior guard Billy Fields is expected to play after sitting out last week.