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Black Bears expecting to bounce back

During a streak of five straight winning seasons, including a trip to the 13th Region Tournament finals in 2013, the Harlan County High School baseball program was among the most consistent in eastern Kentucky. Two straight losing seasons later, with a 15-16 mark in 2016 and an 11-16 record last spring, the Black Bears are determined to reverse their fortunes this spring with a veteran squad returning.

“I really have the faith in this team to get to the finals of the region and be in position to win,” said John Lewis, who enters his 10th season as coach of the Black Bears. “It’s all up to them. It’s the same type team of team we had in 2013.”

Offense was the Bears’ major problem a year ago when scoring runs proved difficult. Harlan County was held to three runs or less in eight of nine games last season after May 1.

“We have to have more consistency at the plate,” Lewis said. “I think we’ll be able to make plays at every position out there. Everybody is getting a late start because of all this weather, so there will be some mistakes. We have to do a better job of scoring runs. We have pretty good pitching, so we will be able to compete. We have to score runs and the only way to do that is to manufacture hits.”

Harlan County lost three key players to graduation, including star pitcher Jared Sizemore, four-year starting catcher Brendan Rutherford and shortstop Sean Johnson. Sizemore and pitching coach Drew Chamberlain are hoping a more balanced pitching staff this year will make up for the loss of Sizemore, who led the Bears pasts Harlan in last year’s district tournament and Corbin in the opening round of the regional tournament.

Seniors Cameron Nease and Caleb Carmical, junior left-hander Benjamin Lewis and sophomore right-hander Jay Harris will handle much of the pitching for the Bears this season.

“Cameron throws strikes with all of his pitches and competes. He is also very good at controlling the running game,” Chamberlain said. “Caleb also throws strikes with his fastball and curveball. Ben has an opportunity to be right there with the other two if he throws strikes. Jay is a bulldog who throws strikes and competes. He takes it personal the way he competes.”

Will Scott is back for his senior season at first base, coming off a strong postseason last year that included the game-winning hit in the Bears’ 3-2 win over Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament.

“Will came on strong last year. His bat has become a lot quicker,” Lewis said. “He was worked. We’ll have him in the middle of the order.”

Harris, a sophomore, is the probable starter at second base. Jonathan Wilder, a junior, will see action there, especially when Harris is pitching.

“Football put a little muscle on Jay. It helped him by increasing his velocity on the mound and also on his throws in the infield,” Lewis said. “Jon is starting to mature a little bit. He is working hard.”

Devon Rodridgues, a senior headed to the University of Pikeville to play football, is one of the best athletes in school history and came up big at shortstop last year in the Bears’ win over Corbin in the regional tournament.

“He really came on strong last year,” Lewis said. “Drod is a gamer. He likes that pressure. He’s one who could play a lot of places, especially the outfield.”

Nease, a senior, is back at third base. Hunter Goodwin and Temarcus Hardaway will see action there when Nease is pitching.

“He’s a good hard-nosed kid who will play a solid third and give us time on the mound. I think he will give us more offense this year,” Lewis said.

After four years with Rutherford handling almost every game at catcher, the Bears will turn to sophomore Tyler Casolari or freshman Zac Collett behind the plate.

“Tyler has some big shoes to fill with Brendan doing so much for us,” Lewis said. “We have two kids now with Casolari and Collett. They are both playing pretty well right now.”

Lewis, a junior, returns in center field.

“He has experience and is the general out there,” Lewis said. “He’s gotten a lot stronger all the way around. He will have a lot on his shoulders at the plate, on the mound and in center.”

Carmical, a senior, will start in either right field or left field.

“I think he’s seeing the ball a lot better this year,” Lewis said. “We just need more consistency from him at the plate. We have quite a few guys like that who have to step up more consistently. They have to be able to adjust mentally as a hitter.”

There are several candidates at the other outfield spot including Ethan Maggard, Justin Brown, Michael Simpson and Matthew Simpson.

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HCHS baseball schedule

March 27 at Lee, Va. (L, 8-3)

April 3 at South Laurel

April 5-6 at Pigeon Forge, Tenn

April 9 at Barbourville

April 12 South Laurel

April 14 at North Laurel

April 14 vs West Carter (at North Laurel)

April 16 at Knox Central

April 19 Letcher Central

April 20 at Harlan (DH)

April 21 Knott County Central (at Hazard)

April 24 at Clay County

April 26 North Laurel

April 27 Barbourville

April 30 at Letcher Central

May 1 Middlesboro

May 1 Middlesboro

May 3 Lee, Va.

May 7 Bell County (DH)

May 8 Knott Central

May 11 Hazard

May 12 Garrard County (at Bell County)

May 15 Perry Central

May 17 at Perry Central

May 18 Letcher Central

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HCHS baseball roster

12 Ethan Maggard 3

12 Morgan Day 5

12 Devon Rodriguez 8

12 Hunter Goodwin 14

12 Cameron Nease 22

12 Caleb Carmical 23

12 Will Scott 30

11 Benjamin Lewis 4

11 Jonathan Wilder 6

11 Xzavier Simmons 11

11 Eli Estep 15

11 Michael Simpson 17

11 Matthew Simpson 24

11 Santos Flores 34

10 Tyler Casolari 2

10 Justin Brown 7

10 CJ Carruba 9

10 Cade Pennington 18

10 Jay Harris 27

10 Quinton Boggs 32

9 Zac Collett 1

9 Jacob Brown 12

9 Logan Blanton 19

9 Tamarcus Hardaway 20

9 Riley Sheeks 25

9 Kenny Skidmore 26