Black Bears set sights on a repeat

Michael Jones and the Harlan County Black Bears must answer a much different question than years before as they open the 2017-2018 season. What’s next for a high school basketball team that finally reaches a goal it had chased for nine years?

“We’ve talked about being the first Harlan County team to repeat, and our kids have bought into that,” Jones said. “I think that success added a lot of energy and focus to our kids in practice. They realize what it takes to get to that level, the commitment and time they need to put in, not only in practice but individually.”

Harlan County rallied from a big early deficit to knock off defending champ South Laurel in the semifinals and then held off a Corbin team in the finals that had defeated them twice in the regular season. The Bears finished a 31-4 season by falling to Scott in the first round of the state tournament at Rupp Arena.

The Bears lost three starters in Cameron Carmical, Treyce Spurlock and David Turner, leaving a leadership void that Jones knows he must fill.

“We lost three tremendous players and three tremendous young men and role models for our team,” Jones said. “I think we have some guys who can fill that role in leadership, but I think compensating for the offense we lost will be the biggest challenge. It’s something we’ve worked on every day in practice, and our guys are accepting new roles.”

Harlan County won’t be without big-game experience though with three seniors back who started at least part of the season.

Tyrese Simmons (10.0 points per game last year, 6.5 rebounds per game), an athletic 6-foot senior, is a three-year starter at forward.

“It’s good to have an athlete like Ty. He makes a tremendous difference in our ballclub,” Jones said. “We expect him to take on a bigger role in scoring this year. We’ll rely on him to put the ball in the hole more this year. We have to do a better job this year of putting him in position to score.”

Andrew Creech (6.5), a 5-9 senior, came up huge in the championship game win over Corbin and takes over at point guard with Carmical now at Eastern Kentucky University.

“I called Andrew in before we started the summer and asked if he wanted that responsibility or if he felt more comfortable at the wing, where he played last year,” Jones said. “There was no hesitation. He wanted the ball in his hands. It’s a big task in our offense. We put so much pressure on our point guards. We’ve always had good point guards here, and we feel we have another one in Andrew. He has big shoes to fill and I feel he’ll get better as the year goes on.”

Drew Nolan (8.4, 3.5), a 6-1 seine who missed most of the second of the season last year with a foot injury, is back for his third season as a starter at wing.

“It’s great to have him back healthy,” Jones said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He will play big role this year and he’s accepted that and played real well so far.”

Lamar Burkhart, a 6-1 senior who missed most of last season with a knee injury suffered in football, will take over for Turner at center.

“It’s great to have him back. He came right in and fit in with the team and did a good job this summer of picking up where David left off,” Jones said. “Lamar gives us the option of playing five out because he shoots it so well from beyond the 3-point line.”

Alex Pace, a 6-foot junior, and Gabe Price, a 5-9 junior, were leaders on last year’s junior varsity team and are the leading candidates to round out the lineup.

“We have two with some experience. Pace started this summer and there are times in practice when he’s our best player. He spent a tremendous amount of time in the gym and you can well. He’s shooting it well and defending. He will do the dirty work,” Jones said. “Price played real well in the state tournament. His defense has gotten so much better in practice.”

Patrick Bynum, a 5-10 junior, and Taylor Spurlock, a 6-5 sophomore, are also expected to see extensive action.

“I was really pleased with how well Patrick played this summer. There were times I thought he was the most athletic player on the floor, and that’s saying a lot since we have Ty and some of the teams we played this summer. He gives us an option to play five guards, and we’re a lot more athletic with him on the floor,” Jones said. “Taylor played well this summer and he’s worked really hard in the gym and played a lot of AAU. He’s a lot like Treyce in that he provides matchup problems for teams. He’s going a better job of using his body and getting down in the lane.”

Jones is also excited about he calls the best freshman class in school history. The group is led by guards Tyler Cole, Josh Turner and James Smith and forwards Hunter Helton and Kobe Burkhart.

“I’ve told several people that if we can keep them together it’s the best group to come through here,” Jones said. “We’ve got what you need at every position to make a solid team.”

Harlan County enters the season ranked fourth in preseason polls, something Jones says he can use as motivation.

“Don’t think we didn’t use that last year when we won eight straight after losing a couple of games at midseason and kept dropping in the rankings,” he said. “Coming in as defending champions and being ranked fourth, or as low as seventh by some polls, we talk about it a lot and use it as motivation.

“A lot of our success will be based on how well our offense develops throughout the year. We’re pretty good defensively. I feel we can get after teams and cause problems on the defensive end. We’re behind offensively, which is natural considering who we lost. We may struggle at times offensively, but if we improve like we think we will we will be all right.”