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HCHS ready for run at regional title

After watching his team win 52 games over the previous two seasons followed by first-round losses in the 13th Region Tournament, Harlan County coach Tim McElyea decided last season he was willing to trade in some March and April victories for more wins in the postseason.

McElyea toughened the HCHS schedule and the Lady Bears’ record dropped as expected with only 14 wins in the regular season. Harlan County swept past Bell County and Middlesboro to win a second straight 52nd District Tournament title, but the strategy didn’t pay off in the 13th Region Tournament.

Harlan County, 16-13 last year, lost in extra innings for the second straight season in the regional, falling 5-4 to perennial powerhouse South Laurel. The game was eerily similar to a year earlier when a base-running mistake cost the Lady Bears in a first-round loss to Clay County.

McElyea’s resolve to prepare his team for the postseason hasn’t waned going into the 2018 season as he hopes to present as many challenges as possible for a senior-dominated squad that returns seven starters and is again among the region favorites.

“I’ve talked to all the returning players and it eats at them. I think we should have been in the championship the last two years,” McElyea said. “I can’t explain our base running the past two years — nerves maybe. A sacrifice fly and bloop single have cost us two balllgames. We go over base running and go over it.”

McElyea has toughened the scheduled even more this spring and will play in multiple tournaments, including trips Somerset and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

“We played them all last year,” McElyea said. “Our schedule is the toughest we’ve put together since I’ve been here. We don’t want anybody sneaking up on us in the district and we want to play for the regional championship.

The Lady Bears will feature perhaps the region’s most experienced pitching tandem with Destinee Jenkins (10-7) and Kacie Russell (5-6) back for their senior seasons. Jenkins has been the Lady Bears’ top pitcher since she was in the eighth grade. Russell has been a starter at first since she was a freshman and a regular on the mound.

“Destinee has been a bulldog there, and Kacie has been a great complement,” McElyea said. “Pitching will take you a long way in baseball or softball. Destinee throws it pretty hard and Kacie has the best changeup on the team.”

Freshman Kerrigan Creech, sophomore Destiny Clark and junior Rhileigh Alred will also see action on the mound.

The Lady Bears’ offense will begin with a pair of speedy outfielders as junior center fielder Nikkie Creech again leads off and senior right fielder Lainey Cox bats second.

Creech hit .500 a year ago in only 34 at bats due to an injury that sidelined her for a couple of months and severely hampered the Lady Bears in both offense and defense.

“I think she’s the best center fielder in the region. She has range and has a great arm and can move,” McElyea said. “That injury to her hurt us bad.”

Cox hit .410 last season while leading the team with 30 runs scored and 26 stolen bases.

“Lainey has really improved in the outfield and has a lot of speed. She hit it pretty well last year,” McElyea said.

T.C. Somersall, a junior who hit .267 last year in limited duty, is expected to take over for Haley Blakley in left field.

“If she can put it all together, she has as much talent as anybody on the team,” McElyea said. “She has a quick bat and she can run. She is a work in progress on defense.”

Emily Long, a sophomore who hit .385 last season with two homers and 24 RBI, is back for her second season as the starting catcher.

“She has a good arm and hit the ball well last year,” McElyea said. “She can play several positions. She’s an athlete with power.”

Russell is back for her fourth season at first base, providing run production in the cleanup spot with 22 RBI and eight doubles last season to go with a .370 average.

“Kacie is a gap hitter who has been a good RBI person for us for several years,” McElyea said.

Hannah Johnson, a sophomore, is coming off a breakout season a year ago when she hit .320 with 27 RBI and 10 doubles.

“She has improved a little defensively and I’m looking for her to really break out on offense,” McElyea said.

With a lineup featuring Creech, Cox, Jenkins, Russell, Long and Johnson in the top six spots, the Lady Bears could have one of the region’s most explosive offenses.

“We have pop all the way through the lineup,” said assistant coach Tommy Jenkins.

The biggest question marks for Harlan County are in the middle of the infield following the graduation of Jessie Johnson at shortstop last year and Farren Clark at third base the previous spring.

“There are some opportunities in the middle of the infield,” McElyea said.

Brandy Adams, Shawnee Cress, Regan Caudill, Allee Galloway and Rhileigh Alred are the candidates at second base.

“We’re going to look at several people there,” McElyea said. “That’s a big question mark for us. We have to be solid at second and short. That’s the key for us.”

Jenkins is the likely starter at shortstop when she isn’t pitching. She will be in the lineup every day though as the team’s top hitter last year with a .414 average, along with 48 hits, 37 RBI, four homers and 12 doubles.

“We moved her up in the order last year when Nikki was hurt,” McElyea said. “Destinee likes the challenge of facing a good pitcher. She is one of our best hitters.”

Emily Collett is the early favorite at shortstop when Jenkins is pitching.

“Collett had a big hit for us to to win a game against Clay County,” McElyea said. “She will get her shot at shortstop. We just have to keep her confidence up.”

“She gets down on herself,” added Jenkins.

Harlan County will be favored for its third straight district title, but Harlan and Middlesboro should also be very competitive and Bell County continues to rebuild. The Lady Bears are ranked just below the regional favorites with North Laurel, South Laurel, Clay County and Corbin in the top five with HCHS.

“The district has to come through us. We’ve won the last two and have a senior-dominated team,” McElyea said. “I think our schedule will help prepare us for the postseason. We want to be at our best in May.”

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HCHS schedule

March 19 Claiborne, Tenn.

March 22 Knox Central

March 23 Lee, Va.

March 26 at Letcher Central

March 27 Bell County

March 29 at Lee, Va.

March 30 Middlesboro

April 2-6 at Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

April 9 at Bell County

April 12 Harlan

April 13-14 at Kentucky Prep Classic

April 19-21 at Letcher Central tourney

April 23 at Claiborne, Tenn.

April 24 at Knox Central

April 30 at Middlesboro

May 1 Clay County

May 3 Letcher Central

May 4-5 at Mountain Softball Leader Classic

May 7 South Laurel

May 10 at Harlan

May 11-12 at Somerset/Pulaski County Showcase

May 15 at Corbin

May 17 at Clay County

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HCHS roster

Sr. Shawnee Cress 1

Sr. Regan Caudill 11

Sr. Lainey Cox 14

Sr. Destinee Jenkins 15

Sr. Taylor Johnson 25

Sr. Kacie Russell 27

Jr. Nikki Creech 2

Jr. Emily Collett 7

Jr. K.K. Johnson 8

Jr. Rhileigh Alred 12

Jr. T.C. Somersall 42

So. Destiny Clark 5

So. Emily Long 10

So. Emily Evans 22

So. Hannah Johnson 33

Fr. Jacey Lewis 4

Fr. Brandy Adams 13

Fr. Kerrigan Creech 23

Fr. Allee Galloway 32