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The John Hardin Bulldogs don’t talk much about how last season ended. The painful memory is etched into their minds, but there’s no reason to discuss it.
Less than 2 minutes away from reaching their second Class 5-A state championship, the Bowling Green Purples pulled off an improbably comeback, turning a hook and ladder into a 74-yard touchdown and then converting a 2-point conversion to pull off a stunning 14-13 victory.
The Bulldogs have had to live with that gut-wrenching defeat the entire offseason. While never discussed, it was hanging over them like a dark cloud, driving them in the weight room and during spring and preseason practices.
“I try not to even think about it,” John Hardin senior Khalil Frazier said. “But it always comes back to me. At Bowling Green (in 2011), they were the better team. They beat us. Last year, I thought we were the better team, but we came up short. We have to work even harder and try not to be in that same predicament this year.”
Since the end of last season, John Hardin’s program has undergone major changes. Mark Brown, the only head coach the program had known, stepped down in January after building John Hardin into a powerhouse in 12 years. During his tenure, the Bulldogs went 116-34.
Chad Lewis, who had been with Brown from the beginning of the program, replaces Brown, moving from defensive coordinator, a position he’s held the last four years. Lewis comes from a coaching family as his father, Mike, was the head coach at Hopkinsville, East Hardin and Central Hardin.
Lewis brought in his father to run the offense. Brown had always called the plays, so Lewis said there will be some changes this season.
“It’s going to be very similar,” said Lewis, who will still call the defense. “The biggest difference is we’ll probably be in more formations this year, but we’ll still run all of our base Wing-T plays. It’s just probably going to look a little bit different.”
The coaching change isn’t the only one the Bulldogs have to deal with. They must fill some huge shoes left by last year’s senior class. The offense was rocked by graduation, losing nine players, while the defense lost only five players, but those five made an immense impact.
“We definitely have some big shoes to fill,” John Hardin senior Chris Smith said. “There’s no question about that. But we have some players stepping up and we’re trying to get the next guy ready.”
Next man up could be the slogan around John Hardin this season. It applies to the coaching change to the turnover on the field.
The offense returns only senior quarterback Patrick Anderson and junior center Jared Givan. Anderson passed for 1,931 yards and 29 touchdowns last season in his first year as a starter. He also rushed for five scores.
But now he’ll be working with an entire new supporting cast. Gone are the team’s top three rushers in Wade Holtsclaw, Jalen Fleming and Garrett Ray, who accounted for more than 2,400 yards and 43 touchdowns. The Bulldogs also need to replace Anderson’s go-to receiver in Dorian Collins, who scored 15 touchdowns. Collins became the first John Hardin player with more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season last year. Not to mention the line will have four new starters.
“We have some new backs and new receivers,” Anderson said. “The system is a little different and we’re all trying to get it down. Everyone is hopping on board and we have some talented players. But this isn’t going to be the John Hardin of old where we score 48 points in a half. We have the potential to be good, but it’s going to take some time.”
John Hardin plans to use Frazier and juniors Josh Miller and Elijah Smith at halfback and senior Daquan Deville and Smith at fullback. Seniors Dimitri Cooper, Lavonte Wilson and Zack Wagner will try to fill the void left by Collins.
“I think offensively we’re trying to develop chemistry,” Frazier said. “We’re working on getting better, knowing who to block and where to go.”
While the offense develops, Lewis will look to the defense to shoulder the load, especially early in the season. The defense only gave up 11.1 points per game and held six opponents to eight points or fewer last season.
Despite losing three linebackers and three secondary players, the defense will be anchored by its line. Senior tackles Matt Elam and Koufax Stephens and ends Marcus Goree and Austin Laing all return as does Smith at linebacker. Cooper shifts to strong safety and Anderson will play cornerback, a position he started at as a sophomore.
“Defensively, we’ve made some changes, but not like on offense,” Laing said. “We have a lot of guys returning with experience. We’re set to take the lead while the offense gets better and we come together as a team.”
Regardless of all the changes, John Hardin hasn’t altered its expectations. The Bulldogs have won 42 consecutive regular-season games and 64 of their last 65. They reached the state semifinals five straight years, including getting to the 2009 championship game.
Now the Bulldogs want to take that next step.
“That was a painful way to end a season,” Stephens said. “We don’t want to let that happen again as a team. We’re focused on what we need to do to get better. That’s what we need to do. Our goals haven’t changed. We still want to win a state championship.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.