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Merger changed dynamics of county sports scene

High school sports in Harlan County changed like never before in 2008 when Cawood, Evarts and Cumberland high schools closed to form Harlan County High School. The emergence of HCHS as a relevant program in statewide circles in the 2010s was the biggest difference from the decade before when local programs struggled to compete as they had done through much of the 20th Century.

My fourth all-decade team will feature only two schools, unlike the past two decades when there were four teams. There were five teams from 1967 until Lynch closed in 1981.

Football may have been benefited more from consolidation than any other sport. The three teams involved in merger had won only one playoff game since Evarts won a regional title in 1990 with future Mr. Football Scott Russell leading the way.

Tom Larkey wasted very little time turning the Bears into a winner with a playoff win in each of the first two seasons. The Bears broke a 20-year drought between regional championships in the county with a run to a 5A regional title in 2010. HCHS lost in overtime in the 2011 regional finals before rolling to a second regional championship in 2012. The Bears lost to Damien Harris and Madison Southern in the 2013 semifinals but won four straight district titles from 2010 to 2013.

After a couple of down seasons, the Bears captured their third regional title in 2017 with an impressive postseason run following a 1-4 start, then won a fifth district title in 2018.

The Bears had more than their share of stars in the decade, led by linebackers Carson Whitehead and Jake Middleton. Marcus McMillian, Middleton and Whitehead were the program’s top running backs behind a strong and physical offensive front.

Harlan put up some big numbers on offense early in the decade with Ty Saragas under center and receivers/running backs like Vince Bianchi, Cody Logan and Dakota Morris and several others. Andrew Link was the Dragons’ top rusher during this decade and the previous one with over 3,000 yards on the ground. Harlan had its best season of the decade in 2015 with its first district title since 1999.

Local girls basketball teams had the biggest impact statewide with Harlan’s Jordan Brock and Harlan County’s Blair Green and Kaylea Gross all earning all-state honors. Harlan played in four straight regional championship games from 2014 to 2017 and won two regional titles. The Lady Dragons were also a regular in the All “A” Classic state tournament, finishing as runner-up during Brock’s senior year of 2017.

Harlan County played in four straight championship games from 2016 to 2019, winning a regional championship in 2018. The Lady Bears were in the regional finals seven times in the first 11 years of the program.

The Harlan County boys made a run to the regional finals in 2013, then broke through for a championship in 2017 with seniors Cameron Carmical, Treyce Spurlock and David Turner leading the Bears to Rupp Arena for the first time in program history and for the first time in the county since Cumberland in 2003.

Harlan County made a run at regional baseball supremacy midway through the decade as Tyler Boggs, James Bond and Connor Leisge led one of eastern Kentucky’s best pitching rotations. Boggs, a five-year starter at catcher and on the mound, threw a strong game in the regional semifinals in 2013 as HCHS upset South Laurel before falling in the finals to North Laurel. It was the closest any Harlan County team came to winning a regional title. The Bears won three of four district title from 2011 to 2014 with a lineup that featured Boggs behind the plate, Braxton Fields at shortstop with Bond roaming center.

The HCHS softball team dominated the 52nd District during the decade by winning eight of 10 district titles as Destinee Jenkins and Kacie Russell provided a strong 1-2 punch on the mound while athletes like Kaitlyn Stittums at shortstop, Farren Clark at third and Nikki Creech and Lainey Cox in the outfield gave the Lady Bears a strong defense and athleticism on offense. But while Harlan County dominated the district as a team, Harlan pitcher Ashley Overbay put up the most impressive numbers for an individual. Overbay posted a 43-20 record on the mound with a 1.94 earned run average. She struck out 624 while walking on 64. She was also Harlan’s best hitter with a .498 average in earning all-region honors. She led Harlan to its first trip to the 13th Region Tournament and a 14-8 record as a senior in 2018.

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Boys basketball

First team

G — Cameron Carmical, HCHS

G — Tyler Brewer, HCHS

G — Alex Sergent, HCHS

G — Treyce Spurlock, HCHS

C — Tyler Miller, HCHS

Second team

G — Andrew Creech, HCHS

G — Kyle Hogue, HCHS

G — Kilian Ledford, Harlan

F — Tyrese Simmons, HCHS

F — David Turner, HCHS

Third team

G — Noah Busroe, Harlan

G — Drew Nolan, HCHS

G — Alex Pace, HCHS

F — Aaron Caldwell, HCHS

C — Aaron Simpson, Harlan

Girls basketball

First team

G — Jordan Brock, Harlan

G — Blair Green, HCHS

G — Miranda Davenport, HCHS

F — Ashley Mullins, Harlan

C — Kaylea Gross, HCHS

Second team

G — Kaitlyn Stittums, HCHS

G — Brooklyn Massingill, Harlan

F — Emma Bianchi, Harlan

F — Mackenzie King, Harlan

C —Heather Maggard, HCHS

Third team

G — Whitney Gilliam, HCHS

G — Phebe McHargue, HCHS

G — K.K. Johnson, HCHS

G — Jourdan Ledford, Harlan

C — Sarah Evans, HCHS

First team

Football

Offense

T — Michael Smith, HCHS

T — Zach Caldwell, HCHS

G — Alex Haywood, HCHS

G — James Hill, Harlan

C — Will Banks, HCHS

QB — Ty Saragas, Harlan

WR — Tyrese Simmons, HCHS

TE — Aaron Caldwell, HCHS

RB — Marcus McMillian, HCHS

RB — Jake Middleton, HCHS

RB — Andrew Link, Harlan

K — Marcus Kelly, HCHS

Defense

E — Cole WIlson, HCHS

E — Jordan Calton, HCHS

T — Brian Owens, HCHS

T — Tucker Lewis, HCHS

LB — Carson Whitehead, HCHS

LB — Garry Henson, HCHS

LB — T.J. Green, HCHS

DB — Dakota Morris, Harlan

DB — Austin Maggard, HCHS

DB — Jordy Brewer, HCHS

DB — Devon Rodrigues, HCHS

P — Jordan Kelly, HCHS

Second team

Offense

T — Andrew Baker, HCHS

T — Austin Fee, Harlan

G — Travis Fields, HCHS

G — J.W. Cooper, HCHS

C — Jesse Hensley, HCHS

QB — Scotty Bailey, HCHS

WR — Vince Bianchi, Harlan

WR — Caleb Adkins, Harlan

RB — Dylan Cornett, HCHS

RB — Quintin Mickens, HCHS

RB — Cody Logan, Harlan

K — Boone Allison, Harlan

Defense

E — Dylon Smith, HCHS

E — Derek Akal, HCHS

L — Jeremiah Eldridge, HCHS

L — James Phillips, HCHS

L — Kainer Caudill, HCHS

LB — Caleb Carmical, HCHS

LB — Kenny Pennington, Harlan

LB — Dalton Overbay, Harlan

DB — Zach Chitwood HCHS

DB — Kilian Ledford, Harlan

DB — David Allen, Harlan

P — Eric Young, Harlan

Baseball

First team

P — Jared Sizemore, HCHS

C — Tyler Boggs, HCHS

1B — Connor Leisge, HCHS

2B — Caleb Hogue, Harlan

SS — Braxton Fields, HCHS

3B — Scotty Bailey, HCHS

OF — Sawyer Fields, HCHS

OF — Noah Busroe, Harlan

OF — James Bond, HCHS

DH — Ben Abraham, Harlan

Second team

P — Tyler Cornett, HCHS

C — Brendan Rutherford, HCHS

1B — Austin Wilson, Harlan

2B — Zach Doss, HCHS

SS — Will Varner, Harlan

3B — Tye Patrick, Harlan

OF — Ryan Cope, HCHS

OF — Benjamin Lewis, HCHS

OF — Andrew Dozier, HCHS

DH — Chance Brown, HCHS

Softball

First team

P — Destinee Jenkins, HCHS

C — Savanna Sergent, HCHS

1B — Kacie Rusell, HCHS

2B/P — Ashley Overbay, Harlan

SS — Kaitlyn Stittums, HCHS

3B — Farren Clark, HCHS

OF — Madison Noe, Harlan

OF — Nikki Creech, HCHS

OF — Lainey Cox, HCHS

DH — Hannah Johnson, HCHS

Second team

P — Katie Johnson, HCHS

C — Emily Long, HCHS

1B — Anna Karst, Harlan

2B — Madison Brewer, Harlan

SS — Jessie Johnson, HCHS

3B — Jourdan Ledford, Harlan

OF — Haley Blakley, HCHS

OF — Jesse Cochran, Harlan

OF — Alyssa Mills, Harlan

DH — Tia King, HCHS