By BRUCE W. SINGLETON, CJ Correspondent Commonwealth Journal
During the opening credits of the 1970’s TV series, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the voiceover predicted astronaut Steve Austin’s broken body could be repaired.
“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him,” the voice said. “Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.”
It is only fitting that the newly-renovated Somerset Briar Jumpers should travel to Lee Majors Field tonight in the second round of the Class 2A playoffs. For the first time this season, Somerset is able to put a mostly healthy team on the field.
It could not have come at a better time.
Somerset had to play its best game of the year in order to beat the Yellow Jackets three weeks ago at the Briar Patch. In so doing, the Jumpers all but shut down the offensive performance from leading scorers Ryan Pittman and Seth Barton. If you ask any member of the nine teams Middlesboro has beaten this year, that is something that doesn’t happen very often.
Somerset wants it to happen again tonight.
“Playing a team the second time in 3 weeks that you beat is a dangerous proposition,” Jumper head coach Robbie Lucas said. “Middlesboro certainly doesn’t feel they played to their potential. As a coach, I have to worry about the mind set of our kids after a victory over Middlesboro. “
Perhaps what many have referred to as a lackluster performance against Betsy Layne will be sufficient to motivate the Jumpers. Their coaches have reminded them of that fact in practices this week, and even though they have a more talented and healthy team on the field, those players need to perform in order to advance for the next 48 minutes of football.
“Add to the mix we are playing an extremely talented physical team on their home field, and you see the problem we are going up against,” Lucas said.
The last time the Jackets and the Jumpers met, Somerset was able to force 4 turnovers: 2 interceptions and 2 fumble returns. Even so, Middlesboro players were able to pick off 2 passes and Ryan Pittman was able to return a kickoff for 70 yards in a burst of speed and a breakdown of coverage.
We also have to add to the mix the fact that Somerset has experienced difficulty all year long in maintaining possession of the ball for extended drives. Their scores have come on quick, exciting plays. Not that we’re going to give any of those touchdown gifts back, but the Briar Jumper Nation would rather see the other side have the ball a lot less.
“Our poor ability to take care of the ball and get off the field on long down and distance are things we must improve on if we are going to advance,” Lucas warned. “Our last meeting was very close until we were able to get the lead in the fourth. But unlike last time there is no next game for the group that loses. When that much is at stake we should see the very best each team has to offer.”
Ironically, Somerset’s win over Middlesboro on October 25 had absolutely no effect on the tournament bracket. Sure, Somerset was happy and proud to get a piece of the District Championship pie, but when the tie breaker votes were counted, Somerset remained a three seed and was forced to spend its playoffs on the road.
If Somerset had won only one game during the regular season (Lexington Christian Academy), the Briar Jumpers would still have been a three seed, and a successful trip to Betsy Layne would have put them exactly where they are tonight: going to Middlesboro to play for the chance to advance to the regional championship.
And even though the Briar Jumpers came away with a win last week, the game was still in doubt until Sophomore Quarterback Castle Hatcher wormed his way down the field in a 32-yard scoring run with only 2:03 left on the clock. That made it practically impossible for Betsy Layne at the time, but it didn’t keep them from trying. More than one of even the true fans said that the lead should have been by multiple touchdowns and that the last minute insurance should not have been needed.
And Middlesboro is a lot better than Betsy Layne. With the rich football tradition and the mountain pride that we know will be on the line, the Yellowjackets will almost certainly turn out their best game of the season.
We need also to look to some players who deserve high marks for their performance last week. Senior Cam Cheuvront caught the only three passes Hatcher completed on the night. One of them was for a touchdown. In addition, he had 30 yards rushing.
Somerset was also able to see Will Lange’s long-awaited return. He paid off by rushing for 72 yds and laying out a huge block that took out two defenders on Hatcher’s last TD run.
Then, there was Bryson Jones and his hard to bring down strength and speed. And Braiden McWilliams was able to turn in the playmaking when he was needed.
Finally, the Jumpers were able to bid welcome to Senior kicker Reza Katanbaf, who was able to spot Alex Franklin on the kickoff roles. Franklin, as always, was able to deliver the ball through the uprights when he was called upon to do so.
Somerset has had more misfortune this year than the Briar Jumpers have seen since 2003. It has the hardest playoff schedule it has faced since the 4 seed made its 1999 miracle run.
But by this time of the year, everybody has a tough season coming up. Every team has to play and win in order to earn the right to play for another 48 minutes.
If the Briar Jumpers can overcome their tendency to turn the ball over, it they can keep the Yellowjackets off the scoreboard, and if they can put the points on themselves, they will earn that extra 48 minutes.
If they do not, the lights will be off for the season.
Radio play-by-play action from Jon Burlew and Tim Washam on 102.3 FM. Updates from the game, as well as other games will be posted on the Commonwealth Journal’s Facebook page and on the Twitter handle @cjsportseditor.
Kickoff will be at 7:30 p.m. at Lee Majors Field, Middlesboro High School in Middlesboro, Ky.