Lady Bears counting on Karst to lead them through a quick rebuild after losing four starters

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, November 28, 2023

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By John Henson 

Contributing Sports Writer

Through the 15-year history of Harlan County High School girls basketball, the Lady Bears have made a habit of rebuilding on the run while fielding consistently good teams, as demonstrated by 13 winning seasons, 11 years with 20 victories or more and seven trips to the 13th Region Tournament finals.

Harlan County’s resiliency will be tested again this season with the graduation of four starters (Jaylin Smith, Taylor Lunsford, Hailey Austin and Taytum Griffin) from a 22-10 squad that finished as 52nd District runner-up.

“It’s hard to replace four seniors, and we have a lot of young guys playing bigger roles, but they have accepted the challenge,” said Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan. “I can push this group a little harder and challenge them more. They have to understand they have to show up to play every night and compete. This is a tough region and district, and I think the kids understand that.”

Nolan can take some satisfaction in having senior point guard Ella Karst (19.4 points per game last season, 3.4 rebounds per game) back to lead the Lady Bears’ rebuilding effort. Karst is approaching the 2,000-point mark for her career and is ranked among the 13th Region’s top players.

“Ella has tremendous experience and has leadership qualities. She also leads by example, and we see that every day in practice,” Nolan said. “She is a great scorer and makes her teammates better. She is an asset to any team, and I think she will have a very productive year. She has such a competitive nature and instills that into her teammates. She takes a lot of pressure off everyone with her ability to score and defend. She is a tremendous on-the-ball defender, and that sometimes goes unnoticed.”

Finding help for Karst was one of the Lady Bears’ primary tasks during the summer and fall workouts. Nolan has warned his players against “hiding” when other teams press and counting on Karst to do all the work.

“I’ve tried to explain that everyone has a role every possession, and they have to be a threat to compete against the top seven or eight teams in the region. There is no room to hide and let someone else carry the load,” Nolan said. “They have to get tougher. I can see some of them getting more competitive, We lost four starters, but I think we have kids who can average what they averaged. We have to get them wanting to make these plays.”

Junior guard Kylie Jones (2.3) played a key reserve role the last two years and will move into the starting lineup this season, at least when she recovers from an ankle injury that has sidelined her for several weeks.

“She worked in the offseason on getting stronger and quicker. We hope she can get back by the first game,” Nolan said. “She always gave us a spark. She helps Ella with handling the ball, and she can stretch a defense. She is working on attacking the basket a little more.”

Sophomore guard Cheyenne Rhymer, a leader for the junior varsity squad last season, could round out the backcourt, especially if she can improve her consistency.

“We’ve been waiting on Cheyenne to take a bigger role. She gives us another shooter that can stretch the defense, and she’s improved her defense. That was the area we were most concerned with, and she’ s improved there.”

Maddi Middleton, another sophomore standout, is also in the mix for a starting job at wing and has also battled through injuries in the fall.

“She has been slowed a little by an injury. Her size gives us some flexibility in our rotations because she can play the 3 or 4,” Nolan said.

Seventh-grader guard Reagan Clem will see action at point guard and joins eighth-graders Jaylee Cochran and Kylee Runions and seventh-grader Jaycee Simpson in a middle school contingent that has impressed Nolan.

“Reagan can take some of the pressure off Ella. She is also a real consistent scorer,” Nolan said. “That’s a nice group. I’m excited for the JV with that group because they all handle the ball well and are really tough on defense. They have a genuine pride about themselves and love for the game, and it shows every day. I think as they adjust to the speed and physicality of the high school game, they will be able to see minutes.”

The Lady Bears have finished second to Bell County in the 52nd District in each of the past four years. Harlan also brings back an experienced team, making the 52nd even more competitive this season.

“We’re trying to instill the toughness they need, and I can see the competitive nature coming out every day in practice,” Nolan said. “I think we’ll still be competitive and achieve what we did last year. It will be brutal starting out, so we have to weather the storm. I think we’ll be competitive again this year and have a chance to pull some upsets

“The region is so deep and so strong. Our kids have to show up night in and night out. We have got to show up and compete. I think we’ll gain some confidence as the season progresses and be ready to challenge come district tournament time.”