Bears determined to break district drought with veteran squad returning

Published 4:18 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2024

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By John Henson

Contributing Sports Writer

For more local sports coverage, visit our partners at Harlan County Sports.

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In seven runner-up finishes since last winning a 52nd District Tournament in 2014, the Harlan County Black Bears have found different, and agonizing, ways to lose. Perhaps none were more devastating than last May in Middlesboro. 

Harlan County wiped out a five-run deficit with a six-run fifth inning capped by Jonah Swanner’s grand slam only to see the Jackets scored twice in the seventh inning to win 10-9. HCHS had won all seven district games last season to that point and had posted its first winning season since 2015, finishing 17-13.

Last year was a tough pill to swallow,” Harlan County coach Scotty Bailey said. “I think about it all the time. I think about certain plays and ways it could’ve went, but I watched our boys fight out of a hole. We got ourselves in a spot to win it and didn’t quit. That always shows you a lot about your boys.

“Honestly, I don’t think the boys have quit thinking about it either. This was the by far the best offseasons we have had. A lot of the boys jumped straight into the weight room, summer ball and then fall ball. So, we’re getting somethings going that is going to continue to make Harlan county baseball strong for years to comes. I think the hard work they have put in since the summer will show on the field and get us to a spot to, hopefully, get back to winning district championships and making runs in the region. 

One big reason that Bailey likes the Bears chances this year is a pitching rotation with two aces: senior Tristan Cooper and junior Alex Creech.

“I think it’s as good of a 1-2 punch as you’ll see. They are two quality arms,” Bailey said. “They are like 1A and 1B.”

Cooper posted a 6-4 record last year with a 2.70 earned run average and 82 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings.

“Tristan has worked hard to get his velocity up. I think he’s the best pitcher in the region. He has some shoulder issues last year but is healthy now. He’s working on the curve and slider,” Bailey said. “He wants to play college ball and we will have some coaches looking at him this year.”

Creech was 6-1 last year with a 3.36 earned run average along with 70 strikeouts and only 22 walks in 56 1/3 innings.

“When he’s on the mound, he’s in control. Nothing rattles him, even with errors behind him,” Bailey said. “He’s gained a lot of velocity and pitched well against South Laurel and Letcher Central. His fastball seems to have more pop this year and his off-speed pitches are good.”

Jesse Gilbert and Zayden Casolari, both freshmen, had impressive pitching debuts in the season’s opening week and add depth to this year’s rotation. Eighth grader Carson Clark and junior Josh Duckworth will also see action on the mound.

“I’m throwing them into the fire and putting them into big spots. Zayden and Jesse were both very good in their first game and have made our rotation a lot better,” Bailey said. “Carson will continue to get better and got some experience against the defending state champs (Whitley County) on Saturday. Josh had a real good summer and is getting better.”

Isaac Kelly, a senior and four-year starter, is back behind the plate for his fourth season as a starter. He was second on the squad last year with a .412 average and first in hits with 40 and first in stolen bases with with 27 in 27 attempts.

“We’re going to try to give him a little more rest this year with DaShaun Smith backing him up. He was hitting over .500 for the majority of the year last year. He’s one of our best hitters and does a good job behind the plate. He has improved his throwing, and I’m excited to see what he does this year,” Bailey said.

Will Cassim, a senior first baseman, provides the biggest power threat in the lineup even though he’s lost around 50 pounds since football season. Cassim suffered a groin injury in the Bears’ second game and could be out a couple of weeks.

“Will gives us a lot of leadership. He’s moving a little better now also and is hitting the ball well,” Bailey said. “He plays a big role for us as our four hitter.”

Aiden Craig, a junior, will play second base. He hit .265 last season with 13 hits and 13 RBI.

“He really worked at second base during fall ball and has improved quite a bit and has gained a lot of experience,” Bailey said. “He made one of the best plays I’ve seen at second in the Letcher game. He and Alex play real well together in the infield.”

Creech leads the HC infield at shortstop after sharing time at the spot last year with Brayden Blakley, who graduated. Creech hit .372 last season with 35 hits and 20 RBI.

“I think Alex is as good as any shortstop in the 13th Region,” Bailey said. “He is real comfortable there now. I have a lot of faith in him, especially on defense. He is smooth and has that presence at shortstop.”

Gunner Burkhart, a sophomore, has moved in at third base after playing a reserve role the past two seasons. Freshman Jesse Gilbert will also see action at third and in the outfield.

“Gunner just needs to build his confidence, but he brings a great attitude and really tried to boost everyone else,” Bailey said. “I have thrown a lot at Jesse as a freshman, but he has handled it and worked as hard as anyone since last summer. He never played outfield before but made an unreal play the other night.”

Swanner hit a team-high .441 last year with three homers, 25 RBI and 26 stolen bases. He has worked his way back from a torn ACL suffered in the season’s opening football game at Middlesboro.

“We didn’t know if Jonah would make it back, but he has a second chance and is looking good,” Bailey said. “He’s a month ahead of schedule. We’re going to try to take it slow until we get into district play. He can hit anywhere and hasn’t lost much speed. I’m excited to see how his senior year goes.”

Samuel Henson has been playing center while Swanner works back into form but will likely spend most of the season in left. Henson hit .244 last year with 19 hits.

“Sammy can play a lot of places and will do what he can to help the team. He looks good in the outfield right now,” Bailey said. “He’s made a lot of plays for us already. I’m excited to see how his senior year plays out.”

Cooper could start in right or shortstop, depending on who is pitching. Cooper hit .318 last season with 27 hits and 15 stolen bases. He had a three-run double to help the Bears rally for a win at Letcher Central earlier this season.

“He came up with a clutch hit the other day and scored the winning run. He has really improved as a hitter and can hit near the top of the lineup or in the middle,” Bailey said.

Others expected to see action in the outfield are Gilbert, Kayden Adams and Gunnar Johnson, all freshmen.

Mason Himes, a senior who is still with the basketball team going into the state tournament, will see action in the outfield and as a pitcher. He only played in a handful of games after he was ruled eligible after a transfer from Madison Southern but made an immediate impact with a home run against Middlesboro in the district finals.

Last years’ loss in the district finals has made the Bears even hungrier to finish the job this spring with seven starters returning in a senior-dominated lineup.”

I think we have phenomenal leadership this year by our senior group,” Bailey said. “Tristan, Issac, Sammy, Will, Jonah and Mason have done the right things this whole year as far as leadership and putting in the work I couldn’t be more proud of a senior group. They’re a tight knit group and want to do the things to win ball games. We have some young guys having to step up this year, but the work they have put in even the senior guys notice, so they have all the faith in the world in them, just like I do.

“The boys have been hungrier this year than I’ve ever seen them — wanting to practice longer, wanting to put in more work, wanting to stay in the weight room, wanting to play games — it’s just awesome to see.”