Hamm era begins with Lady Dragons

One of the fiercest competitors in the long history of Harlan High School, Tiffany Hamm returned home last season to accept a challenge at her alma mater.

It’s not a typical test of rebuilding a program from the bottom up, but instead Hamm has the task of keeping the Lady Dragons on top. Preseason rankings that placed her Lady Dragons sixth or seventh in the 13th Region coming off back-to-back regional tournament titles pushed the heat up on Hamm’s determination, as well as that of her players.

“I saw the rankings and I hope we finish higher. I’ve never put a lot of stock in that though. I like to wait until the ball goes up and then see if I am better than you that day,” said Hamm, who coached for several years in North Carolina as an assistant after completing her college career at Western Carolina. “I know South Laurel and Harlan County are at the top. After that, I think it’s pretty even. We may not be in that category in November, but I hope we are in the conversation come February. It will take us a while.”

There are only two major differences from the Harlan roster from a year ago, but they were big losses. All-state guard Jordan Brock, who left Harlan as the county’s all-time leading scorer, is now at Tennesee Tech. Derrick Akal, the coach who led the Lady Dragons to four straight regional finals appearances, is now the Harlan boys coach exclusively after one season of coaching both teams.

“I think they have took offense at that,” said Hamm of the preseason ranking, but I think that shows what kind of player Jordan Brock was. What they have done in being back-to-back regional champions at an All “A” school is awesome. It’s a great feat at any sized school, but to do it at a Class A school is big time. I have a lot of respect for what they have accomplished and what coach Akal did. When I watch the games on film, I say to myself that I can’t believe they won that one. I have lot of respect for their will to win.”

Helping the Lady Dragons adjust from depending so much on one player has been a focus for Hamm in the preseason.

“A big weakness for this group is standing around waiting for somebody to do something,” Hamm said. “They took a back seat to Jordan for so long, justifiably. A big concern for me was teaching everybody to play basketball instead of spotting up on the 3-point line and waiting for somebody to throw it to them. We went back to basics. I want to strengthen all parts of their game. I want them to be complete basketball players, and I felt a lot of the people returning weren’t complete basketball players.”

Instead of playing a summer schedule as most teams do, Hamm opted to spend the offseason focusing on helping ease the adjustment to a new coach and system.

“I don’t think you feel as a coach that you ever have enough time, but I feel it’s went well,” Hamm said. “I enjoy these girls. They are fun to be around, they get along well. I think that lessens some of the headache. The adjustment has been very smooth, and I think some of that can be attributed to us taking that time and just working on getting to know each other this summer versus running around and playing a lot of games.

“The work ethic has been great. We’ve spent a ton of time on just skill development, lifting and conditioning. They did a lot more of those things than they’ve done in the past. I have a strength strict program, and I’ve seen a lot of gains in that area.”

Depth is usually an issue for Class A schools, but it’s not something that worries Hamm.

“I’m not super concerned about that because I played here and we won back-to-back regional titles (1998 and 1999) with five or six players,” she said. “If you get them in the condition they need to be in and they have that toughness about them you can get through it. One great thing about Kentucky is everyone competes for the same championship. Even if you have 15 players, you can only put five on the floor at a time.”

Mackenzie King (13.3 points per game last year), a 5-10 senior forward, will take over as the Lady Dragons’ leader as she enters her fifth season as a starter.

“She will be our horse. They basically won the region with her and Jordan trying to do it all,” Hamm said. “She has improved her low block game. We’ve tried to add a mid-range and low post game to her because she’s so strong. She’s a state champion in track, but she has still made a lot of gains in the weight room. We want to utilize the low-post game a little more than they have in the past.”

Brandi Haywood (2.9, 2.1), a 5-10 senior, is back at center where Hamm hopes she can develop into a more consistent player.

“To be a big kid, she is very athletic. She is quick and light on her feet and has good timing,” Hamm said. “She isn’t real confident offensively. I don’t know if that’s because she hasn’t had the ball in her hands much. We want her to anchor the defense and be a good high-low passer. She has improved offensively but has a ways to go.”

Replacing Brock at point guard may be the most difficult task for any girls high school player in the commonwealth and that job will fall to either junior Payeton Charles, who saw extensive action off the bench last year, or senior Noah Canady (6.3), a 3-pointer specialist last year at a wing.

“They are about even to me in that spot and both are in my top six players. Payeton will kind of be our dog on defense to pick up and create some havoc. She is doing a much better job of pushing it in transition. She has improved in that area,” Hamm said. “Noah is our best ball handler and she has put in a ton of time with a lot of ball-handling drills since I got here in May. She can shoot a little bit, but I think she has improved her whole game as far as penetrating to the goal, pull-up jumpers. We’re trying to be more complete in doing all aspects of the game. I’m a firm believer in being a multi-faceted basketball player.”

Taylor Simpson (5.3, 2.5), a 5-7 senior, is back at one one wing with Canady and sophomores Natalee King and Whitney WIlson among the candidates to round out the backcourt.

“A strength for her is spot-up shooting, but she is also our best perimeter passer. She will be a key part of our offense since we have two bigs. She will make the right play,” Hamm said. “Natalee has really missed almost two years with injuries, but she is a big, physical, strong kid who has worked real hard. She is the most versatile kid on the team but has a long way to go in her basketball maturation. She has a huge upside though. Whitney is physically very strong and gives us a different look on the wing. She can attack the goal and can keep her man out of the paint.”

Katelyn Burkhart, a 5-7 senior, is back with the team after a year away and will see action at forward. Both of the King sisters could also shift to wing, if needed.

“She is versatile. She is a little undersized in the post and not super speedy on a wing, but she can shoot it, handle it and has a little bit of a post game,” Hamm said.

Hamm hopes to play an up-tempo game and also promises “a lot less 3-pointers,” which would be a big change for a team that has lived and died with 3s the past several seasons.

“We want to play man to man, but it depends on depth,” Hamm said. “If you get in foul trouble, your game plan goes out the window sometimes. We have to get up and down the floor.”

Hamm likes how open the players have been to changes.

“They are playing a completely different style than they have ever played,” she said. “They have been very open and responsive to what we are trying to do, so that’s not an issue.”

Even with all the changes, Hamm believes the Lady Dragons should be able to draw from their history of success.

“They are back-to-back regional champions, so they are winners and know what it takes,” Hamm said. “They are all about having a common goal, but we’re definitely not as talented as we have been. You don’t lose a player like Jordan Brock and be as talented as you are before, but you do have players coming back who won back-to-back regional titles, and I don’t think you can ignore that.”