Early postseason exit a first for local baseball
Published 7:45 pm Friday, May 24, 2019
The 13th Region baseball tournament will open Monday at Lincoln Memorial University and for the first time since the Harlan County teams moved back to the region in 1986 there won’t be a local representative at the regional.
Harlan County fell 7-5 to tournament host Bell County on Monday in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament, the first time in the 11-year history of the school that the Bears lost in the first round. Harlan County had won three district titles and finished second seven times in the first decade of the program.
Harlan fell to Middlesboro 12-7 in the first round, the fourth straight early exit for the Green Dragons and the 10th in 11 years.
There are several reasons why both local teams have struggled of late, beginning with Little League programs that haven’t produced extremely strong all-star teams in over a decade. The numbers have been down in both leagues, making it harder to compete with counties that field only one program. The Hazard/Perry County Little League has dominated area tournaments for several years with a combined league that serves the entire county and promotes tougher competition at the league level.
Only a handful of our best high school baseball players have played summer ball over the last decade or so, putting us behind other schools and counties whose players compete through the summer. There’s just no way to compete with programs like Knox Central, Corbin and the Laurels if their athletes are playing twice as many, or more, baseball games.
A combined Junior League team of Tri-City and Harlan players last summer provided some much-needed experience for several of the middle school players in the county, but it’s only a start. We need teams like that every summer with some of the top players perhaps competing on travel teams out of town as a few of our elite players in the past have done.
Kevin Hatfield, a long-time friend who was involved in local basketball for a number of years, died on Sunday after a long battle with illness.
Hatfield played at Cawood High School in the early 1980s under Kirk Chiles and Mike Jones. He was on teams that made trips to the regional finals in both 1981 and 1983, losing to Clay County and Middlesboro, respectively.
You could make a case that the 1983 team was the best in school history with a senior class that included Hatfield, David Hensley, Everly Eads, Tony Sanford and Keith Hensley, along with a junior class of Tim Miniard, Donnie Davenport and Steve Hunley. The Trojans knocked off Clay County in the semifinals when reserve sophomore guard Ralph Napier hit a couple of free throws to end one of the best regional tournament games I’ve ever witnessed.
Middlesboro edged Evarts and coach Billy Hicks in the other semifinal, setting up a showdown with Cawood in the finals. That Middlesboro team was led by Jeff Kyle and current HCHS girls assistant coach Elgie Green and the game was close all the way before Middlesboro won in overtime after a very controversial end of regulation when the Jackets tied the game.
Hatfield ran a successful business for many years and returned to the game as a coach in the early 2000s when he helped lead Rosspoint to several county championships when his son, Kyle, was a player. Hatfield went on to serve as an assistant at Cawood under Anthony Nolan in the final years before consolidation.
I think Kevin got a kick out of a (true) story I told about him once when we were with a bunch of other people, who couldn’t remember the 1980s, before a game at Knox Central a few years back. Cawood went ahead of Middlesboro in the final seconds of the 1983 finals at Knox Central when Kevin hit what I, and many others, thought should have been the game-winning shot from the free-throw line with four seconds left. Middlesboro scored just before time expired after it appeared the clock keeper was slow to start the clock, first on a timeout on a pass to midcourt, then before Middlesboro took two shots in the final three seconds. The Jackets won in overtime.
I told Kevin he would have always been remembered for hitting the biggest shot in Cawood history if that clock had started on time. But, instead, he was remembered as just another good player. He always laughed when he repeated the last part of the story.
While the baseball streak for Harlan County ended, a softball streak of trips to the 13th Region Tournament was extended to 11 as the Lady Bears routed Bell County in the semifinals and edged Middlesboro in the finals.
It was the fourth straight 52nd District Tournament championship and the eighth in 11 years for the Lady Bears, who will try to break a four-game losing streak in the regional tournament next week in Whitley County.
The list of district championship games since HCHS opened follows:
2019 — Harlan County 9, Middlesboro 8
2018 — Harlan County 6, Harlan 5
2017 — Harlan County 11, Middlesboro 1
2016 — Harlan County 6, Middlesboro 2
2015 — Middlesboro 11, Harlan County 5
2014 — Harlan County 3, Middlesboro 0
2013 — Middlesboro 4, Harlan County 1
2012 — Harlan County 6, Bell County 1
2011 — Harlan County 2, Bell County 1
2010 — Harlan County 2, Bell County 0
2009 — Middlesboro 9, Harlan County 1