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Kaylea Gross is back for her fourth season at center for Harlan County and is one of the main reasons why the Lady Bears are picked to win this year’s 13th Region title after finishing second the past two seasons.

Lady Bears picked to win 13th Region

With five second-place finishes in the nine-year history of Harlan County High School, including the last two years, it’s no secret that the Harlan County Lady Bears are hungry for their first trip to the state tournament

Harlan County brings back its top 10 players from a 28-3 team that won 25 straight games before falling to Harlan in the regional finals for the second straight year. The Lady Bears earned 10 of 12 first-place votes and finished with 54 points in the annual Cats Pause/Harlan Daily Enterprise coaches poll. South Laurel received the other two first-place votes and finished with 45 points, just ahead of North Laurel (34 points), Clay County (25 points) and Whitley County (12 points). Harlan, Williamsburg, Pineville, Barbourville and Bell County round out the top 10.

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49th District

North Laurel

A consistently good team over the past several seasons, the North Laurel Lady Jaguars would like to take the next step this year and break through for the program’s first 13th Region championship. All five starters are back in an experienced lineup that coach Eddie Mahan plans to test early and often.

“We open up with Harlan County in the Legacy Nissan Classic, then we have the WYMT (Mountain) Classic, because we want to see where we are where we need to get to by the end of the season,” Mahan said. “We don’t want to just get a 20-plus win season. That means nothing. We’ve fallen short at the end of the season and we have to do better when it counts. We played our best basketball, even when we weren’t very good, at the end of the season, but last season wasn’t what I wanted, even with Madison Sheppard out. With her back, I hope we can put the pieces together and make a run.”

Sheppard (15.1 points per game last year, 7.5 rebounds per game), at 5-7, and Hannah Lawson (12.3, 4.6), at 5-9, are the senior leaders for the Lady Jaguars in a lineup that will also include junior guard Courtney Carroll (4.9) and sophomore guards Gracie Jervis (11.4, 3.3) and 5-10 Isabell Gray (7.9, 5.2). With 6-4 center Raegan Hubbard (9.8, 7.2) not returning, Mahan said Lawson could shift from point guard to the post in a lineup that should be able to run with anyone.

Taylor Combs (7.2, 3.4), a 5-7 sophomore forward, will also compete for a starting job, along with 5-6 eighth-grader Emily Sizemore (4.4, 2.3).

Clay County

With everyone returning from a 20-win team, the Clay County Lady Tigers are hoping for a deeper run in this year’s regional tournament after last year’s first-round exit. Experience won’t be a problem with sophomore guard Kaylee Mathis (21.8, 5.0) returning for her fourth season as a starter and juniors Summer Parker (10.8, 6.1), Shelby Phillips (9.5, 3.8) and Kimberlyn Mills (4.4, 4.1) all back for their third seasons in the lineup.

“We have something like 16 years of starting experience with Mathis starting four years and the juniors starting three years each,” Clay County coach James Burchell said. “They have all improved. Parker has really made a lot of improvement, especially with her shooting.”

Taylor Asher (10.2 2.0), a 5-4 freshman, is back at point guard. Freshmen Alexis Lewis, a 6-0 center, and Edwina Hacker, a 5-8 guard, will also see action, along with seniors Chasity Sizemore and Candy McClure.

“I think our depth is our key,” Burchell said. “We’re still fairly small, but with Lewis I can give some size if I bring her in with Parker at the forward. We could be bigger and stronger this year, which could help us against certain teams.”

Jackson County

Bryan Harris takes much of the blame for the Lady Generals’ disappointing 2017 season, beginning with a schedule that he says was much too tough for a young team.

A quick turnaround is possible with all five starters back in one of the region’s tallest lineups, featuring 6-0 junior guard Sara Mulligan (8.0, 2.2), 5-11 junior forward Lexis Creech (11.6, 7.8), 5-10 junior forward Raelon Creech (4.5, 3.8) and 5-10 sophomore center Taya Davis (11.5, 4.0). Haley Adkins (5.9, 2.3), a 5-5 senior, is back at point guard. Sophomore guards Amber Creech (2.0, 2.7) and Leann Lewis are also in the mix.

“Several girls have improved their shooting. Obviously, we’re not going to fast-break anyone. We struggle when we play too fast,” Harris said. “We have to slow the tempo down and get it inside and play from inside out. We have to do a better job on 3s though. I think we only hit more 3s than our opponent in one game all last season, and the way girls basketball is played we have to do a better job there.”

Red Bird

One season after improving from one win to four, the Lady Cardinals have high hopes to continue their progress with three starters returning, led by 5-9 senior forward Kara Wilson (13.3, 8.7), 5-9 eighth-grade point guard Alyssa Gibson (8.6, 4.2) and 5-6 wing Macy Price.

“We’re hoping to improve on last year,” said coach Tonya Asher. “We’re still pretty young with four eighth-graders who could play quite a bit. They should put some pressure on our high school players to do better. We think we can continue building our team with these eighth-graders.”

Taylor Caldwell, a 5-9 freshman forward, will also compete for a starting job, along with eighth-grade guards Lexi Bowling and Liberty Taylor.

Oneida Baptist

There is rebuilding and then there is starting over, which is basically the situation that first-year coach Jacinta Newsome faces as the new coach of the Lady Mountaineers.

Darlene Mutesi, a 5-4 eighth-grader who scored five points last season, is the only player on the current OBI roster who scored in a varsity game last season.

“You hear people talking about a building year, but we’re trying to encourage the younger ones to stick with it by focusing on fundamentals,” Newsome said. “We need to get a middle school program going again. We have a high turnover rate here, so we hope to get these girls invested and committed to stick with it for years to come. We have some girls who have played before and some who have never picked up a basketball in their life. I see a lot of potential and the desire and heart are there.”

Amy Decker, a 5-7 senior, is a probable starter for the Lady Mountaineers. Other possible starters include 5-2 junior Makyla Baker, 5-1 sophomore Lucy Farley, 5-3 sophomore Emilie Field and 5-11 sophomore Katy Scroeder.

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50th District

South Laurel

A 10-game improvement last season put the Lady Cardinals in position for a regional championship before they fell to Harlan in the regional semifinals.

South should make another run this season with four of their top six players returning, led by standout sophomore guards Ally Collett (13.8, 2.3) and Amerah Steele (14.2, 3.3), along with 5-8 senior wing Taylor Cromer (9.3, 3.3) and 5-11 junior center Dianna Morgan (8.2, 6.2).

“One key will be replacing the leadership we lost with our 2017 seniors,” said second-year coach Jon Walker. “Stats wise, it doesn’t look like we lost a lot, but we lost our leadership. Those seniors had been playing here so long some girls are learning to play without them for the first time.”

Mariah Anders, a 5-8 junior forward, is expected to round out the lineup, with 5-10 sophomore center Zoe Williams and 5-1 freshman guard Brianna Howard serving as the top reserves.

“We’re hoping with a very tough schedule this year we’ll be ready to compete with anyone,” Walker said. “Our goals are to compete with anyone we play. Our program took a big turn last season and we’re hoping to keep growing. We have to stay focused, because most likely with our schedule there will be a moment or two this season when things don’t go our way, but we have to stay focused on getting better and learning.”

Whitley County

Getting back to the regional tournament after several years away isn’t the only goal for a senior-dominated Lady Colonels’ squad that would like to challenge the favorites.

“This is the most experienced team I’ve coached,” said third-year coach David Estes. “I know what their strengths are, and they know what I expect. We’ve developed a good sense of mutual trust that will pay off during the difficult times that each season holds.”

The coach’s daughter, senior Abbey Estes (14.0, 3.0), is back to again run the Whitley offense. Sierra Feltner (10.0, 8.0), a 5-9 senior, is among the region’s top forewords. She is joined inside by 5-10 sophomore Lyndi Kate Lawson (6.0, 4.0). Senior Hannah Clear (3.0) and junior Kaelie Frazier (14.0), both 5-3, are back at the wings. Mackenzie Smith (2.0, 2.0), a 6-1 junior center, and Sara Bolton (2.0), a 5-6 junior, provide quality depth.

“We should be as deep as any Lady Colonel team in a long time. I expect to play 10 nightly,” Estes said. “I told the team recently in practice that spots 7 through 14 are very close. That should lead to increased competition in practice which should help sharpen us for the battles ahead.”

The Lady Colonels struggled at times last year against quality post players, an area that Estes says must improve for Whitley to contend in the 13th Region.

“For us to reach our goals this year, our post play will have to improve,” he said. “We have to be able to rebound the ball better. Defensively inside we just have to develop a tougher mindset and learn to be more physical. Offensively, we have to put more pressure on the rim. Whether it’s a post up or a slash, we have to get the ball to the paint, get some high percentage shots and earn more free throws.”

Williamsburg

Excitement is at an all-time high around the Lady Jackets’ program with everyone back from a team that more than doubled its win total from a year earlier. Williamsburg was ranked in the top seven in the 13th Region, the highest the Lady Jackets have been in a long time.

“I think the girls have taken that as a challenge. They think they should be a little higher,” said second-year coach Randy Crider. “Some people put Whitley above us, and we split with them. It’s given us motivation to show that they should be respected even a little more. The success we had last year has made them hungry. We had to do a little teaching last year, but this year the players are doing more on their own. They are teaching each other and it’s been awesome to see.”

Williamsburg features a nice mixture of talented guards, including sophomore Lillie Hall (11.3, 3.4), senior Kayla Gibson (11.5) and junior Lillie Abbott (8.1, 4.9), along with 5-10 senior post players Tori Lester (2.6, 2.9) and Kelsey Tye (6.0, 7.1). Grace Patrick, a 5-11 senior, provides depth, along with sophomore guard Madison Chapman (4.6, 2.9) and 5-9 sophomore forward Allison Caddell (2.0).

The Lady Jackets hope to end Harlan’s run as All “A” regional champions, but Crider knows it won’t be easy with Harlan and Pineville also bringing back experienced teams and Lynn Camp always competitive.

“Our goal is to be competitive in the All “A” and maybe win it,” he said. “We also would like to make it to the region tournament. We have to continue to come together as a team and compete.”

Corbin

Former Corbin star Isaac Wilson returns home after two years at Middlesboro to take over a team that lost 20 times last year, three years after winning back-to-back regional titles.

“It’s progressing really well. There’s been a lot of carryover from the summer,” Wilson said. “The girls are really buying into what we’re doing and working hard in practice”

Size shouldn’t be an issue with 5-11 senior forward Cora Stevens (6.3, 5.9) and 6-0 junior center Jadyn Robertson (2.6, 4.2) joining 5-11 junior Mackenzie Grant (10.9, 7.8), a transfer from Lynn Camp. Freshman Shelby Stewart is expected to take over at point guard with 5-6 sophomore Marisa Scott and 5-7 freshman Lauren Steely competing for a starting job at wing. Junior guard Harleigh Grubb could also help if she can bounce back from a string of injuries.

Corbin’s rebuilding efforts won’t be easy in a district that features three of the region’s top seven teams.

“The 50th District is always very tough. Williamsburg, Whitley and South are all in the top five, but rankings at the beginning of the year don’t really bother us. We realize it’s not about where you start but where you finish,” he said. “Expectations are the same as always, getting to The (Corbin) Arena for the regional tournament.”

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51st District

Pineville

A second straight 20-plus win season ended badly for the Lady Lions with a loss in the first round of the 51st District Tournament. Three senior starters are back as Pineville sets its sights on both the 51st District and All “A” Classic regional titles.

“I think we can be competitive,” said Pineville coach Jamie Mills. “We have to play very good defense. We have good chemistry, so they aren’t selfish at all. After being so close last year, they realize what it takes to get there. They realize the work they have to put into it.”

Jill Enix (13.9, 9.0), a 5-11 senior guard, is among the region’s top players and will be the top option in a Pineville lineup that also features senior point guard Sarah Combs (8.2) and 5-9 senior forward Mackenzie Fuson (5.6, 3.9). Freshman guard Whitney Caldwell (4.8, 2.4), last year’s sixth man, will move into the starting lineup, along with 6-0 freshman Raigan King, a transfer from Knox Central. Sophomore guard Courtney Bryant and 5-8 sophomore center Chesney Brock are key reserves.

Barbourville

Former Knox Central star Janet Jones, who played three years at Dayton, will take over as the Barbourville coach and expects to be competitive in a district that features no powerhouse squads.

“The girls have worked extremely hard in conditioning and practice up to this point so far. They have been very eager to learn new things and very determined to get better individually and as a team,” Jones said. “We are ready to start playing games and see how we match up with the rest of the teams in the region.”

Senior forward Anna Daniels (17.6, 10.0) averaged a double-double last year to rank among the region leaders in both scoring and rebounding last season. Shelbie Jones (4.9, 7.0), a 5-9 senior center, and Abbagail Smith (8.7, 3.7), a 5-4 sophomore guard, are also returning starters. Caylen Mills (9.7), a 5-5 eighth-grader, is expected to also move into the lineup with sophomores Grace Jones and Lucy Robinson and eighth-grader Aislinn Middleton in the mix for the other starting job.

“We’re working hard, but we have a lot of players who have not really been in the position of being counted on to do a lot of things,” Jones said.”They are taking to their roles and working and doing what I ask them to do.”

Lynn Camp

Richard Jones has made a habit of exceeding expectations in his quarter century with the Lady Cats, including their second district in three years last February. Getting there once again won’t be easy this season with Lynn Camp losing three of four players who averaged in double digits scoring last season.

“They have to be patient,” Jones said. “We have kids who have to from role players to the go-to people. How they handle that is the big question.”

Bradi Coe (10.3, 2.1), a junior, will have to shift from wing to replace Brooklyn Bryant at point guard and is the only player back who averaged at least three points a game. Molly White (2.9, 2.8), a 5-9 junior, takes over at center, with 5-7 junior Jayda Rogers (2.1) at forward and 5-6 senior Haley Walker and 5-5 junior Macie Miracle at the guards. Jasmine Rogers, a 5-10 sophomore center, will also see action.

“This group isn’t as tough as we’ve been in the past, so they have to toughen up a little,” Jones said. “We also aren’t as deep as usual, once you get past the first five players. It will take a while for us to get there.”

Knox Central

Jamie Sowders’ first job as a basketball coach will be quite a challenge as he strives to rebuild a Knox Central program that has struggled for much of the century. His task was made even tougher when junior guard Toni McCombs (10.1, 2.0) left for Mercer County and senior forward Mary Jade Stewart (6.7, 11.0) decided not to play.

“We’re definitely rebuilding, and that can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on how our girls respond. We can be pretty good if they are willing to work,” Sowders said. “I think defense and rebounding are the keys for us.”

Morgan Warren, a 5-7 sophomore, is expected to take over at point guard with 5-10 sophomore Ryleigh Swafford the favorite at center. Madison Taylor (4.8, 4.0), a 5-7 senior forward, should move into the starting lineup, as will 5-8 junior forward Emily Davis (7.1, 6.7) and 5-6 freshman guard Presley Partin (5.2)

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52nd District

Harlan County

Led by all-staters Blair Green (23.1, 7.2) and Kaylea Gross (20.0, 9.1), the Lady Bears enter the season as the 13th Region favorite. Also back are senior guard Rebecca Middleton (6.1, 3.3), junior point guard Phebe McHargue (4.8) and 5-8 junior forward Breann Turner (4.0, 4.4). Depth is another strength for HCHS with several reserves who could start for most teams in the region, including junior guards Shelby McDaniel (2.8), K.K. Johnson (2.5) and Reanna Middleton (3.4) and senior forwards Lainey Cox (2.6, 3.0) and Morgan Napier.

“It is unusual and it’s hard to balance that. I tell them it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes sometimes,” Green said of the Lady Bears’ balance. “They all have confidence in each other and that really helps. Practice is so competitive. They know that if you don’t come to play, a lot of people can take your spot.

Harlan

Losing all-state point guard Jordan Brock and her 25 points a game and the leadership of coach Derrick Akal won’t be easy to overcome, but first-year coach Tiffany Hamm will have four senior starters back — forward Mackenzie King (13.3, 2.6), center Brandi Haywood (2.9, 2.1) and guards Taylor Simpson (5.3, 2.5) and Noah Canady (6.3). Junior guard Payeton Charles and sophomore forward Natalee King are candidates to round out the lineup.

“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.”

Bell County

The Lady Cats’ decline continued last season as they adjust to life without Miss Basketball Maci Morris following a regional championship season in 2015. Bell dropped from 29 wins in 2015 to 17 and then 12 last year. Coach David Teague hopes to reverse the trend this year but it won’t be easy with three starters graduating.

“We’re working hard, but we have a lot of players who have not really been in the position of being counted on to do a lot of things,” Teague said. “They are taking to their roles and working and doing what I ask them to do. I think we’ve got some potential. I look forward to get going with it.”

Two sophomores — 5-3 guard Brittany Davis (6.7) and 5-9 forward Ashley Middleton — are back in the starting lineup, with 5-9 sophomore Abby Harris (5.1, 2.3) and 6-3 senior Brittney Cupp, a Cumberland Gap, Tenn., transfer, also expected to play key roles. Senior guards Lindsey Bryant and Karlee Cox are also expected to play key roles.

Middlesboro

With an experienced lineup coming back, led by senior guards Hannah Warren (8.9, 2.) and Jamayha Poe, the Lady Jackets expect to be more competitive in a tough 52nd District that has sent two teams to the 13th Region finals each of the past three years.

“I think we’re in the mix,” Middlesboro coach Ron Edwards said. “We finally have some length and height. We just have to get stronger.

Avoiding injuries, as with most teams, is a key for the Lady Jackets.

“Losing Hannah (Warren) after Christmas really hurt us last year,” Edwards said. “We have to keep everyone healthy and give some of our younger girls time to progress.”

Junior guard Baylee Woody (8.5) and 5-8 senior center Malorie Carter are also returning starters in a lineup that could also include 5-7 sophomore Grace Moles. Several talented eighth-graders will also push for playing time, led by 5-10 post players Lakin Burke (6.4, 3.7) and Kailey Owens (2.9) and 5-6 guard Tenley Jackson.