Jackets overcome defensive woes to get district win

Published 11:58 am Tuesday, October 3, 2023

By John Henson

Contributing writer

Two years after making a run to the state semifinals in 2A and with the goal of doing it again in 1A this year, the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets and coach Larry French were feeling more than a little fortunate after hanging on for a 40-24 win Friday at Harlan.

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The Jackets gave up 257 yards on the ground, including 202 yards and two touchdowns to junior tailback Darius Akal, as they found themselves in a shootout in a first half that featured 48 points. The Middlesboro defense made a couple of stops down the stretch after the Dragons had pulled within eight points in the third quarter. Middlesboro moved to 2-0 in district play and 4-2 overall.

“We were able to do some good things offensively and put the ball in the end zone and score some points, because we needed all the points we could get, and that’s for sure,” French said, “We’re struggling on defense right now and we have to get better. Harlan played us tough. We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what we can come up with for next week. We survived another week.”

Harlan fell to 1-6 after its sixth straight loss but showed improvement against a Middlesboro squad that was the preseason favorite in District 7.

“I thought we played really well offensively,” Harlan coach Eric Perry said. “We ran the football like we wanted, Our offensive line played awesome and reverted back to their old self. We did that against Middlesboro last year. We got behind and had to take some chances, but all in all I’m pretty pleased. Kudos to Middlesboro for making enough plays to win. I was proud of the kids for not falling apart with a little adversity. If we keep going, we’ll be a tough out for somebody (in the playoffs).”

Middlesboro senior quarterback/defensive back Cayden Grigsby, the district’s preseason player of the year, electrified the crowd before many were settled in their seats as he found a seam on the kickoff in an 82-yard touchdown return. He threw to Jack Yoakum for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 lead only 16 seconds into the game.

Harlan answered with a 59-yard drive that featured a 36-yard run by Akal and a 10-yard pass from Baylor Varner to Nate Montanaro to set up Varner’s 1-yard touchdown run with 7:28 left in the first quarter. Varner went in for the two-point conversion to tie the game at 8.

A 23-yard run by Vince Smith set up the next Middlesboro score as Rylee Foster went in from the 4 with 5:17 to play in the opening period. Grigsby added the two-point conversion for a 16-8 lead.

Grigsby found Kam Wilson open across the middle and the senior receiver turned it into a 54-yard touchdown as he raced down the sideline. Smith went in for two points and a 24-8 lead with 2:18 to play in the first quarter.

After an exchange of punts, Akal found an opening over the left side and raced 53 yards for a touchdown. He then added the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to 24-16 with 9:58 to play in the first half.

Xavion Shehan, Grigsby and Smith each picked up first downs in a seven-play, 72-yard drive capped by Smith’s 10-yard run with 6:59 left in the first half. Smith’s conversion pushed the Middlesboro lead back to 16 points, at 32-16.

Akal went 36 yards on the third play of the second half to cut the deficit to 32-22 with 10:15 left in the third quarter. Akal was stopped on the two-point conversion attempt.

“Darius has been unbelievable. He is really hitting the hole hard, unlike earlier in the year when he danced a little too much,” Perry said. “He is delivering a blow now. He has also taken on a leadership role. We also blocked well.”

Smith closed the Jackets’ scoring with a 20-yard run with 3:18 left in the third quarter. Grigsby threw to Wilson for the two-point conversion and a 40-22 lead.

Donovan Montanaro stripped the ball away from Foster after a 30-yard run early in the fourth quarter, then recovered the fumble to turn the momentum back to the Dragons. Varner threw to Hunter Clem for one first down and ran for another as the Dragons drove inside the Middlesboro 30 before Grigsby, who had four interceptions last week in a win over Lynn Camp, picked off a Varner pass inside the Jackets’ 5.

The Harlan defense held from there and forced a punt, then picked up two points and a safety when the ball was snapped over Grigsby’s head and out of the end zone.

“Our kids battled hard and they battled back,” Perry said. “Earlier in the season, I don’t think we would have done that. They’ve come together. I told them they battled hard and we had our chances. We could have done better on the defensive end in the first half, but we did a nice job on defense in the second half.”

The Dragons got the ball back and drove inside Middlesboro territory before stalling at the Jackets’ 18 with 2:32 left.

Middlesboro travels to Pineville on Friday. Harlan is open next week before traveling to Lynn Camp on Oct. 13.


Scoring Summary

MHS 24-8-8-0 — 40

HHS 8-8-6-2 — 24


M — Grigsby 82 kickoff return (Yoakum pass from Grigsby)

H — Varner 1 run (Varner run)

M — Foster 4 run (Grigsby run)

M — Wilson 54 pass from Grigsby (Smith run)

H — Akal 53 run (Akal run)

M – Smith 10 run (Smith run)

H — Akal 36 run (run failed)

M — Smith 20 run (Wilson pass from Grigsby)

H — Safety when ball was snapped out of end zone on punt


            M         H

First downs 9 16

Rushes-Yds 28-221 43-257

Passing 80 53

Comp-Att-Int 3-3-0 7-19-1

Punts 3-28 3-24

Fumbles 2-1 0-0

Penalties 11-91 6-45

RUSHINGMiddlesboro, Smith 9-91, Foster 10-71, Grigsby 9-59. Harlan, Akal 21-202, Varner 14-34, Washington 8-21..

PASSINGMiddlesboro, Grigsby 3-3-0-80. Harlan, Varner 7-19-1-53

RECEIVINGMiddlesboro, Wilson 1-54, Shehan 1-30, Yoakum 1-(-4). Harlan, N, Montanaro 5-49, Clem 1-15, D. Montanaro 1-9.