It’s a new season and a new era for the Letcher County Central Cougars. Gone are head coach Hillard Howard and defensive coordinator Delano Thomas, who guided the Cougars to one regional title and appearances in three other regional title games in only five years as a school. The reins are now in the hands of Mike Whitaker.
Whitaker was a standout at Leslie County High School as a quarterback, and played college ball at the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. He has coached for several years, most recently at Powell County. At Letcher Central, Whitaker inherits a solid group of returning players and dresses 45 players.
Returning at quarterback is junior Logan Johnson, who had a remarkable sophomore season with 34 touchdowns. He had 16 rushing and 18 passing touchdowns, and ran for more than 1,100 yards.
Johnson has an impressive backfield to work with. Jesse Rose and Drew Bentley will get the bulk of the carries. They both have breakaway speed. He has some new faces at receiver with Matt Boggs, Chris Tyree, and Keaston Hall.
The Cougars are also just as solid on defense with most of the defensive starters returning. The Cougars are ranked #9 in class 5A by Bluegrass Preps and #6 by WYMT-TV. They start the season with three of their first four on the road. They traveled to South Laurel and will visit Middlesboro before coming home to host Hazard. Then they will travel to Belfry and that’s all before the district begins.
The new season kicked off last Friday as the Cougars traveled to London to take on South Laurel and second year head coach Frank Welch. He was 4-7 in his first season at the helm and looks to improve on that this year. He uses the option a lot and converted running back Tyler Vaughn, a senior, is the main weapon. Vaughn rushed for 1,400 yards last season.
The Cougars brought a lot of fans and they won the toss and deferred to the second half. South Laurel opened the game on offense and started at its 20-yard line. After an off sides against the Cougars on the game’s first play, Vaughn tried a pass that was picked off by junior Drew Bentley at the Cougar 42.
Behind Rose and Bentley, the Cougars moved down to South Laurel’s 36-yard line. Johnson found Matt Boggs down on the 10 for a huge first down. After a penalty on the Cougars, Johnson found Chris Tyree on a little screen pass and he put on some slick moves and found the end zone from 21 yards out to put the Cougars on the board. The extra point was missed by Sidney Fields and it was 6-0 Cougars.
South Laurel started from the 30 and answered quickly. After a loss of one on the first play from scrimmage, Vaughn found Jeremy Perchard on a pass and he got away from the defender and was off for 71 yards and the touchdown. The extra point was good and with 6:21 in the first quarter it was 7-6 in favor of South Laurel.
On the ensuing kickoff , the ball hit a Cougar and bounced away. South Laurel recovered and the momentum had shifted. South Laurel could not take advantage of the gift and on a third-and-10 play Vaughn threw his second interception of the quarter as he was picked off by Jesse Rose at the 20-yard line.
Johnson quickly hooked up with Matt Boggs out to the 43-yard line. The ball was tipped by South Laurel, but it went into Boggs’s hands. Rose moved the ball to the 25 on a couple of runs, and Johnson hit Boggs again on the 16 but the drive stalled and the Cougars punted.
The quarter ended and the second began with a punt by South Laurel. The Cougars had good field position at the 43, and a personal foul against South Laurel moved the ball to the South Laurel 27- yard line and a first down. Johnson hit Chris Tyree down on the 9 with a quick pass, and Rose scored from 9 yards out on the next play. The conversion pass to Ryan Hall was good and it was 14-7 with 9:04 left till halftime.
The score stayed that way at halftime. The Cougars opened the third quarter on off ense and moved down deep into South Laurel territory. But disaster would strike on a fourth-down play as a pass by Johnson was picked off and returned all the way by South Laurel for the touchdown and it was 14-14 just like that.
The Cougars took over on offense and the jitterbug struck again as the ball was fumbled and recovered by South Laurel, which had it at the Cougar 20. But now the Cougars defense stepped up and forced a field goal. It would be no good and the Cougars had really dodged a bullet.
The Cougars really started to flex their muscles as Drew Bentley took off for 64 yards down to the South Laurel 16 on the first play from scrimmage. He got the call again later in the drive and scored from 13 yards out to give the Cougars a 20-14 advantage.
The Cougar defense really shut down South Laurel most of the night with the exception of the one big pass play. Their other touchdown was by the defense.
The next possession by the Cardinals would result in the Cougars’ fourth interception of the night. This time Logan Johnson picked off Vaughn’s pass. As the third quarter came to an end, the Cougars had moved all the way to the Cardinal 19 but the drive stalled. South Laurel got it back and made two plays, and then Vaughn scrambled and found an opening and took off for 80 yards and the score as he broke four tackles.
The point after gave the Cardinals the lead with 11:34 left in the game, but the Cougars answered in a big way. After the kickoff Rose picked up 34 yards to the Cardinal 46. Johnson found sophomore Keaston Hall down on the 7-yard line with a pass, and Johnson later scored from one yard out. The Cougars led 26-21 with 8:41 left in the game.
The Cougar defense shut down Vaughn and company on the next drive, and LCCHS took over on off ense at its own 45. Rose picked up 23 yards to the Cardinal 32 on a first down play and Drew Bentley put on the finishing touch with a 32-yard touchdown to give the Cougars a commanding 32-21 lead with under 7 minutes in the game.
The teams both got shots to tack on some more points, but it didn’t happen and the Cougars notched up their first victory for Coach Whitaker with a 32- 21 final.
The Cougars were down twice in the game and responded both times. There were some first game jitters, but the Cougars overcame them and got the job done. With the exception of some big plays by Tyler Vaughn, the Cougar defense dominated the Cardinals.
The Cougars will now get ready to take on Middlesboro and new head coach Randy Frazier. Frazier was a former star at Whitesburg High and Morehead State. He also played some pro football for Kansas City. It should be exciting.