HCHS coaches making return to Sweet Sixteen

While the trip to the Sweet Sixteen on Wednesday at Northern Kentucky University will be a first for the Harlan County Lady Bears, two of the HCHS coaches have been to the state tournament before as players. Head coach Debbie Green was the star of the 1987 Harlan squad that won the 13th Region Tournament for the first time in school history.

“Of course, it was sweet as a player, and I wanted these girls to experience it,” Green said. “These girls will go down in history as the first girls team from Harlan County High School to make it to the state tournament. Everyone is so proud of them. This crowd we have tonight is unbelievable.”

Elgie Green, a former head coach at Middlesboro and now an assistant on his wife’s staff at Harlan County, said he was asked by a former teammate if he would trade his two regional championships (1982 and 1983 at Middlesboro) for a regional championship for his daughter (all-stater Blair Green) and her teammates.

“I told him that I would because I’d love to see Blair end her career in the state tournament,” said Elgie Green, who called the victory Saturday the highlight of his 18-year coaching career. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

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Kaylea Gross didn’t get to play in Saturday’s championship game, but she was not forgotten as she sat on the HCHS bench while her teammates put the finishing touches on the victory.

Chants of “That’s for Kaylea,” “That’s For Kaylea” could be heard across The Corbin Arena as the Harlan County student section paid tribute to the Lady Bears’ senior center, a third-team all-state selection last year and a four-year starter before she went out with a torn ACL early in the season against South Laurel in the WYMT Mountain Classic.

Gross buried her head in her hands as she heard the chant, apparently overcome by emotions.

While she won’t be able to play next week, Gross’ basketball days are not over. She has announced plans to continue her career at the University of the Cumberlands, one of several colleges that had been expressed interest in the Harlan County star.

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Green led the all-tournament team and was joined by teammates Lainey Cox, K.K. Johnson, Phebe McHargue and Shelby McDaniel. Madison Sheppard, Hannah Lawson and Gracie Jervis were selected from North Laurel. Amerah Steele and Ally Collett represented South Laurel. Abbey Estes and Sierra Feltner were selected from Whitley County. Harlan’s Mackenzie, Knox Central’s Presley Partin, Jackson County’s Taya Davis and Pineville’s Jillian Enix rounded out the squad.

It was the fifth straight regional for King, who played in four regional championship games. Unless I missed someone, King and former teammate Jordan Brock share the county record with four regional finals appearances.

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While Harlan County loses a Miss Basketball candidate in Blair Green, along with standout forward Lainey Cox and Morgan Napier and Macie Napier, the Lady Bears lead the 52nd District with three returning starters for the 2019 season and will be favored for a third straight district title with a lineup likely featuring Johnson, McHargue, McDaniel, Breann Turner and Reanna Middleton, along with juniors to be Morgan Blakley and Hannah Wood.

Bell County and Middlesboro each lose three starters to graduation. Harlan will lose four four starters.

On the boys side, Harlan County could set a record with a fifth straight 52nd District Tournament title, but it won’t be easy with Harlan, Middlesboro and Bell County all returning senior-dominated squads and the Bears taking a hard hit in graduation for the second straight year.