It’s time for Lincoln County to hit the road, but the Patriots won’t soon forget their last home game.
They’ll remember the way they felt Friday night after the first playoff victory of their careers, a 28-21 victory over Letcher County Central in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
And they’ll remember the long road back from a forgettable first half of the season to a victory to the joy of winning their last game at Death Valley.
“It was just the best feeling. I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Lincoln tight end/linebacker Vinny Morris said. “I just love my teammates for letting us get one final victory on this field.”
“That was one of my goals when I was a freshman,” quarterback Ryne Otto added, “to win my last game at Death Valley, and we were able to accomplish it.”
Lincoln coach Mike Settles said that was a point of emphasis before Friday’s game.
“We talked about that in pregame, with our seniors especially: ‘If someone told you this is the last game you’d ever play at Lincoln County High School, how would that make you play,’” Settles said. “I told them that not because I thought we’d lose, but because I thought Harlan (County) would beat Pulaski (County) and we knew that this could be it. For those guys to win on their home field, is just very exciting to not only me, but our staff and community.”
Now Lincoln will be off to eastern Kentucky and a second-round game Friday at Harlan, which defeated Pulaski 20-0 in its first-round game last week.
Harlan (10-1) steamrolled its opponents in District 8, averaging 51.6 points per game in its three wins. The Black Bears nearly went undefeated, winning their first nine games before Bell County rallied to beat them 25-14 in their season finale.
Lincoln (5-6) has won five of its last six games, and its victory over Letcher was its first postseason win since 2007. Such a win might have seemed like a longshot at midseason, when the Patriots were 0-5, but they said they always thought it was within their reach.
“At the beginning of the season, we thought we would be right here,” Otto said. “The 0-5 start, it hurt us all. I mean, we were down in the locker room, and the coaches did a great job keeping us up. We knew when we were going into district play it didn’t matter then; we were getting a fresh start.”
The Patriots traded touchdowns with Letcher (4-7) in the first half, then kept the Cougars’ potent offense under wraps in the second to extend their season.
“I feel like it does validate the second half of our season, that our kids are winners, that we did play well. I thought we laid an egg early in the season, but I’m so proud of our kids and the way they responded. Letcher County’s a good football team, and we proved that we are, too, tonight,” Settles said. “We were really at a point in the season where we had to make a decision as a staff and as players. Perseverance was rewarded – and I thank God for that – I think for our kids for not quitting and for our staff for not quitting.”
Deon Shannon rushed for three touchdowns, and Otto had a season-high 12 pass completions and one touchdown pass for the Patriots. Meanwhile, Letcher quarterback Logan Johnson threw for only 133 yards – less than half of his season average – and the Cougars managed only 23 yards in the second half.
They also turned the ball over twice, and one turnover led to the winning touchdown, which came with 7 minutes, 13 seconds to play on a 1-yard run by Shannon on fourth-and-goal.
“I’m proud of the players, because so many different kids made big plays tonight, whether it was a big block, catch, tackle or run and I’m just really excited about our team right now. It just shows the improvement of the program,” Settles said.
Vinny Morris, a senior, said the Patriots expected to improve, even in mid-September when it didn’t seem they were.
“We were a better team than we had showed in the first 5 games, and it just finally clicked that we needed to start playing like we had to play – and like we can play,” Morris said.
Just as the Patriots made the most of their second chance at midseason, they made the most of a second chance to score off a Letcher turnover in the second half. They got the ball at the Cougars’ 38-yard line after Lincoln’s Hunter Mason recovered a dropped punt, but that series ended in a missed field-goal attempt after the drive stalled at the 9.
Two plays later, Zach Byrd pounced on a loose ball after a low snap, and Lincoln took over at the Letcher 23. Morris made a difficult catch along the right sideline on third-and-4 for a 12-yard gain to the 5.
Otto was stopped while trying to go up the middle on third-and-goal from the 1, but on fourth down he pitched the ball right to Shannon, who found a clear path to the end zone while Letcher’s defenders focused their attention on the center of the line.
“We did a great fake to Vinny. He’s a powerhouse runner that teams have got to be aware of coming through the middle, so we knew if we could flip it to Deon and get his speed on the outside good things would happen,” Otto said.
Letcher stalled just past midfield on its next series, then opted to punt, giving Lincoln the ball back with 3:10 remaining. The Cougars tried to use their defense and two remaining timeouts to get the ball back, but Otto threw to Honaker for 23 yards and to Morris for 16, producing two first downs that allowed Lincoln to run out the clock.
“I was surprised. I thought they were going to fake or try to go for it because they’re so good offensively, but I was glad they did,” Settles said. “It’s always great to end the game in a victory formation.”
Shannon scored on runs of 17 and nine yards in the second quarter, and he rushed 31 times in all for 113 yards. Otto was 12 for 16 for 173 yards, with Morris and Cameron Honaker catching four passes each.
Meanwhile, Letcher and Johnson, who averaged more than 200 passing yards per game in the regular season, struggled to establish a passing game right from the start.
“Right when we sent them three-and-out on the first drive, we knew that they weren’t going to throw on us like they had been on other teams,” Morris said.
Pass defense has been a problem for the Patriots at times this season, but Settles said it’s becoming less so.
“We really have gotten better in pass coverage. I feel like we’re getting more physical, we’re playing receivers better, and also we’re putting pressure on the quarterback when we need to as well,” he said.
Shannon’s two touchdowns came on Lincoln’s first two series, once after taking over at the Letcher 35 following a short punt and once at the end of a 12-play, 88-yard drive. The Patriots then made it three touchdowns in three series when Honaker capped a 10-play, 61-yard drive by scoring on a 16-yard pass in the second quarter to give Lincoln a 21-7 lead.
Two rushing touchdowns by Johnson – the latter at the end of a 16-play drive – allowed Letcher to tie the game 15 seconds before halftime.
The Cougars couldn’t get back to the end zone after halftime, however. They had only two first downs in the second half, and Johnson didn’t even attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, finishing 7 for 21.
Lincoln’s next opponent won’t throw so much. Harlan averages 380 yards per game on the ground and 65 yards in the air.
The Black Bears feature two talented rushers in Marcus McMillian (1,841 yards, 27 touchdowns), who scored all three touchdowns in their win over Pulaski, and Jake Middleton (1,326 yards, 10 TDs).
Harlan averages 41.3 points per game and has allowed 15.3 per game.