Going back to his playing days under future Cumberland coaching legend Roger Morris in the early 1980s in Keokee, Va., Tim McElyea had been either a baseball player or baseball coach for much of his life, especially during the times he wasn’t serving his country in the U.S. Army.
McElyea found a new challenge and new sport early last season when Howard White resigned as coach of the Harlan County Lady Bears. McElyea went from baseball to softball almost overnight and learned there were more differences in the two than he imagined.
McElyea learned enough to lead the Lady Bears to another winning season, at 17-13, and another trip to the 13th Region Tournament, even though their string of 52nd District Tournament championships ended at three with a loss in the finals to Middlesboro.
WIth a full offseason to learn, both the game and his players, McElyea is ready to add some aggressiveness to the Lady Bears’ approach this season.
“I like the hit and run. We’ve opened it up. The playbook is open,” he said. “Coming from baseball to softball, I wasn’t sure what I could do last year. I’ve learned a lot. Teams like South Laurel and North Laurel play small ball when they have to with bunting and hit and runs. That’s why they dominate, because no one else even tries it.”
Replacing pitcher Katie Johnson has been McElyea’s chief concern in the preseason. Johnson kept the Lady Bears in the game almost every night the past couple of seasons as a workhorse on the mound. Johnson posted a 16-13 mark as a senior, striking out 201 in 178 innings while recording a 2.36 earned run average.
Destinee Jenkins, an eighth grader, was the only other Lady Bear to see action on the mound a year ago, posting a 1-0 record and a .61 earned run average in 23 innings with 24 strikeouts and 12 walks. Freshmen Jessie Johnson and Haley Blakley are also being counted on to handle some of the pitching duties.
“We’re young on the mound with two freshmen and an eighth grader,” McElyea said. “Right now the eighth grader is our No. 1. She has a good arm and locates well. She is capable of keeping us in ball games. We scrimmaged Unicoi County, a team in the state semifinals in Tennessee last year, and it was a 3-0 game.
“They will be good arms. We’re young on the mound. There will be good days and bad days. Katie struck out over 200 girls last year, and we don’t have a girl who can do that right now. I think all three of them will be dandies one day.”
McElyea hopes to take some of the pressure off the pitching staff by scoring more runs.
The HCHS offense will revolve around three-sport standout Kaitlyn Stittums, one of the region’s best athletes. Stittums moved from center field to shortstop last year and led the Lady Bears in offense with a .430 average and a team-best 38 runs scored.
“She does it all. She’s our leader,” McElyea said. “She can steal bases and makes a lot of plays for us. She is everything to us.”
Farren Clark, a sophomore third baseman, will join Stittums at the top of the HCHS order. Clark hit .356 a year ago.
“She came a long way defensively last year and her bat picked up,” McElyea. “She is one of those, the harder you pitch it the farther she hits it. She is solid at third base.”
Savannah Sergent will shift from the outfield to first base or catcher this season. As the team’s second-best hitter last year with a .427 average, Sergent will be counted on to provide some punch in the middle of the lineup. Regan Nease, who like Sergent is a junior, will also see action at first base.
“Savannah is a strong hitter,” McElyea said. “She has a little pop in her bat, and Regan has come on strong and should really help.”
The Lady Bears are off to a good start offensively, scoring 16 runs in a win over Leslie County and eight in a victory over Cumberland Gap, Tenn.
“We’ve hit all fall and winter,” McElyea said. “When you look at our lineup, with Stittums and Clark up top, they can fly, then you have Savannah and Tia (King). I think hitting will be a strength and defense has tightened up. We might get in some slugfests. I think if we can hit and play defense we can be competitive.”
Chyanna Harris, a senior who hit .306 last season, is back at second base. Harris made several nice plays in the Lady Bears’ two wins to open the year.
“She came a long way defensively last year. Her bat came around at midseason. We expect her to pick up where she left off,” McElyea said.
Bridget Robinson, a senior who returns at catcher, will be a key player for the Lady Bears’ this season, both on offense and defense.
“We put in some plays for her so she can throw the ball a little more. She has a good arm, but she hesitates,” McElyea said.
TIa King, a sophomore who could hit cleanup this season, will play right field or serve as the designated hitter. King hit .425 last season with 31 hits and 18 RBI in only 73 at bats.
“She has good sting in her bat. She hits with power and is a good RBI person,” McElyea said.
Johnson, who earned a starting job last year as an eighth grader, will return in center field after hitting .250 in 2013.
“She has a good arm, probably the strongest on the team, and had a good year out there last year,” McElyea said. “Her bat came a long way last year.”
Senior Mallory Johnson is expected to start in right field.
“Mallory has worked on her slap hitting and bunting,” McElyea said. “Last year she was out there quite a bit. She had a good fall.”
Amber Creech, a junior, will see action at designated hitter, as well as well as in the infield.
“She had knee surgery, but she’s a pretty good hitter. We have to get her in there in certain situations,” McElyea said. “I see her playing some second and third and EH (extra hitter).”
Harlan County has made it to the 13th Region Tournament in each of its first five years, and McElyea expects that to continue despite the tough 52nd District race that awaits. Middlesboro, Harlan County and Harlan were among the region’s top seven teams a year ago and all return several key players.
“I think we can compete in the district. Middlesboro is pretty tough with their pitching back, and Harlan will be pretty good. It could be anybody. The region goes through North and South,” McElyea said. “I think people will overlook us because we’re young on the mound and this is my first full year, and that’s fine.”
Lady Bears roster
Grade’ Name’ Position
12’ Chyanna Harris’ 2B’ 32
12’ Mallory Johnson’ OF’ 34
12’ Bridget Robinson’ C’ 24
12’ Kaitlyn Stittums’ SS, OF’ 10
11’ Amber Creech’ OF’ 12
11’ Regan Nease’ 1B’ 42
11’ Savannah Sergent’ 1B, OF’ 12
10’ Farren Clark’ 3B’ 3
10’ Erin Cornett’ OF’ 25
10’ Sidney Kelly’ SS, OF’ 21
10’ Tia King’ OF, C’ 35
10’ Mikayla Roberts’ OF’ 2
10’ Cassie Robinson’ OF’ 11
10’ Katie Robinson’ OF, 2B’ 5
10’ Brandi Simpson’ OF’ 17
10’ Whitley Wynn’ OF’ 22
9’ Haley Blakley’ OF, P’ 00
9’ Kaitlin Evans ’ 1B’ 23
9’ Jessie Johnson’ OF, SS, P’ 13
8’ Destinee Jenkins’ 2B, P’ 15
7’ Hannah Johnson’ 2B, OF’ 33
March 14’ Leslie County’ W, 16-3
March 19’ Cumberland Gap, Tenn.’ W, 8-0
March 20’ Lee, Va.’ L,
March 25’ Knox Central
March 27’ Williamsburg
March 28’ at Williamsburg
March 31’ at Clay County
April 3 ’ at Lee, Va.
April 8 ’ at Bell County
April 10’ at Cumberland Gap, Tenn.
April 12’ at Harlan
April 15’ at Middlesboro
April 17’ at Knox Central
April 22’ Middlesboro
April 23’ at Hazard
April 24’ Whitley County
April 25’ Pineville
April 28’ at Corbin
April 29’ at Bell County
April 30’ Clay County
May 5’ Clay County
May 6’ Jenkins
May 7’ Letcher Central
May 10’ at Letcher Central
May 12’ Harlan
May 13’ at Pineville
May 15’ at Whitley County
May 16’ Hazard