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Estep expects Dragons to be a surprise

Cory Estep had the smile of a man with a secret when asked how good his Harlan Green Dragons could be in 2018.

“People don’t need to sleep on us this year. We’re going to shock some people,” said the second-year Harlan coach. “We need to find a couple of pitchers past our top two and we need to solidify our lineup a little. Once we do that, we’ll be dangerous come May.”

The optimism may be something of surprise for a team that finished 9-15 last year and has been knocked out in the first round of the district tournament the past two years and all but once this decade, but Estep likes the way this year’s squad has progressed in the spring.

“We were a little younger last year and these guys have grown up a lot. I like the energy of this team. They want to be out here and doing something baseball-wise,” Estep said. “They just want to be part of the game.”

Much of the Dragons’ success will depend on the continued progress of junior Will Varner, potentially one of the region’s top pitchers who will also hit leadoff and play shortstop. Varner struck out 100 batters in 54 innings last season, posting a 2.65 earned run average and a 3-4 record.

“He’s the catalyst. He wants the ball every day,” Estep said. “It’s hard to deny a guy like that. He’s picked up some velocity and is probably in the mid 80s now. He’s worked in the offseason and gotten stronger. You can’t say enough about a guy with that mentality. He eats, breathes and sleeps the game.”

Michael Robinson, a junior, will also see extensive action on the mound after posting a 2-3 record last year with a 4.40 earned run average.

“He’s as good as anyone we have as far as being able to spot the ball. He keeps it low,” Estep said.

Others expected to action on the mound are seniors Tyler Carmical and Pedro Roman and junior Antonio Roman. Two lefties, sophomore Wil McCarthy and freshman Shane Lindsey, will also pitch, along with freshman Ethan Cornett and senior Jacob McCurry.

“We may struggle a little with depth, but they have worked hard in the offseason, and I think they will come in and do their jobs and trust their defense,” Estep said.

Varner, who plays shortstop when he doesn’t pitch, hit .464 last year with seven doubles, one triple and one homer with 25 stolen bases in 27 attempts.

“He will hit leadoff and has the most experience on the team. In my opinion, he’s one of the best players in the region,” Estep said. “He fields real well and has a high IQ of the game. He will do whatever he needs to do to help the team.”

Antonio Roman, a junior who hit .288 last year with 17 steals, will also play shortstop and several other positions.

“He is just as good as Varner with the glove and has a lot of speed,” Estep said. “He’s just a baseball player.”

Pedro Roman, a senior who hit .275 last year, is back at third base.

“I’ve been impressed with how Pedro has grown up mentally and physically,” Estep said. “He will hit in the middle of the order, and he also has a good glove and arm. He doesn’t care to get in front of the ball.”

McCarthy, who hit .167 last year as a reserve, has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring as he has taken over for Austin Wilson at first base.

“He’ll do a good job there. He has developed some grit this off-season and has grown up some,” Estep said. “He has been hitting the ball hard everywhere. He has been a lot more consistent and is one of our best bunters.”

Carmical, a steady senior who hit .339 last year and stole 20 bases in 22 attempts, is back at second. Cornett, a freshman, will also see action at second, especially when Carmical is on the mound.

“He flew under the radar last year, but he can make contact and really frustrate you,” Estep said. “We have him in the two hole and we expect him to set the tone.”

Garrett Begley, a junior best known as a lineman for the Dragons in the fall, will see action at first and third base.

“He’s a tough kid who doesn’t care to get in front of the ball,” Estep said.

Josh Knuckles, a junior, and Drew Burnette, a senior, are expected to share time at catcher.

“Josh has been a workhorse for us. He knew he was competing for a spot and has gained a lot of maturity. He is a good receiver and blocker whose offense has improved,” Estep said. “Drew has been out a couple of years, but he is getting there. He will fill in real nicely and also get some opportunities at DH.”

Replacing the speedy and athletic Noah Busroe in center field has been one of the most difficult tasks of the off-season for the Dragons. Robinson, a junior, and Jeremiah Mills, a freshman, will get the first shot at replacing Busroe.

“They are two speedsters who can absolutely track a ball down,” Estep said. “Jeremiah has the potential to catch up with Noah. He was one of the best we’ve seen.”

Cornett, McCurry and Mills are among the candidates to play left field and right field, two spots that are still up for grabs.

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Harlan roster

Sr. Tyler Carmical 6

Sr. Pedro Roman 20

Sr. Drew Burnette 24

Sr. Brandon Day 25

Sr. Jacob McCurry 32

Sr. Trevor Pryor 34

Jr. Antonio Roman 2

Jr. Will Varner 5

Jr. Kanyon Hall 9

Jr. Andrew Simpson 21

Jr. Josh Knuckles 22

Jr. Garrett Begley 30

Jr. Michael Robinson 35

So. Wil McCarthy 31

Fr. Ethan Cornett 0

Fr. Jeremiah Mills 3

Fr. Isaiah Hall 4

Fr. Shane Lindsey 13

^^^

Harlan schedule

March 23 at Buckhorn W, 11-0

March 26 Red Bird (All A) W, 22-2

March 27 at Williamsburg (All A) L, 10-0

April 3 Barbourville

April 6 at Leslie County

April 7 Jenkins (DH)

April 9 at Whitley County

April 10 at Knox Central

April 13 Middlesboro

April 14 at Williamsburg

April 16 at Jackson County

April 19 at Hancock County, Tenn.

April 20 Harlan County (DH)

April 23 at Perry Central

April 26 Barbourville

April 28 Buckhorn

April 30 Bell County (DH)

May 1 Knott Central

May 4 Letcher Central

May 5 Pineville

May 5 Clay County

May 8 Whitley County

May 10 Knox Central

May 11 Williamsburg

May 12 at Pineville

May 15 Lynn Camp

May 17 at Barbourville

May 18 Leslie County