For the fifth time in six years, a 52nd District team played for a chance to represent the 13th Region at Diddle Arena in the Sweet 16 when Harlan took on Corbin in the regional finals.
For the fifth time in a six years, a 52nd District team finished as regional runner-up as Harlan followed Bell County in 2013 and Harlan County in 2012, 2010 and 2009 with losses in the championship game.
There’s a very good chance that a 52nd District team will be back in the regional finals again in 2015 with Bell County, Harlan and Harlan County all expected to be ranked in the top five of the region. I believe it will be the year that a 52nd District team makes that trip to Bowling Green.
It wouldn’t shock me to see an all-52nd District final, which has happened only one time before. Harlan defeated defending champ Cumberland in the 1987 regional finals, avenging a loss to the Lady Skins in the district finals. Maci Morris, the all-state guard for Bell County who will be a leading candidate for Miss Basketball in 2015, has several connections to that 1987 showdown.
That Harlan team featured Maci’s mom, Patti Myers (Morris), who went on to play at Transylvania. Cumberland was led by standout forward Amy Morris (Maci’s aunt), who hit the game-winning shot in a state tournament win the previous year for the Lady Skins.
Bell County was the favorite throughout the 2014 season with only one loss to a regional opponent (Harlan County) before falling to Corbin in the regional finals. The Lady Hounds went on to capture their second straight regional title.
Both Corbin and Whitley County were hit hard by graduation, opening the door for a 52nd District team to break through. Harlan and Bell County each lose only one starter and will be among the favorites, along with Clay County, which also loses only one starter, and Harlan County, which brings back two of its best players and several top reserves from the region’s top freshman team.
The following is my annual look back at the best of the season just completed and a look ahead to what I think will happen next winter.
G — Miranda Wilson, Corbin
G — Kayla Wilson, Corbin
G — Brandi Smith, Whitley County
G — Maci Morris, Bell County
C — Kandace Craig, Whitley County
G — Jordan Brock, Harlan
G — Jayci Cotton, Clay County
G — Brooklyn Massingill, Harlan County
F — Blair Green, Middlesboro
F — Sara Robinson, Clay County
G — Kaitlyn Stittums, Harlan County
G — Jourdan Ledford, Harlan
G — Jessica Sanders, Bell County
F — Sarah Ashley, Corbin
C — Jessica May, Lynn Camp
G — Morgan Garnett, Bell County
G — Bella Noe, Harlan County
F — Kara Erslan, Barbourville
F — Kelsey Erslan, Barbourville
C — Shannon Shackleford, Harlan County
Maci Morris, Bell County
Jayci Cotton, Clay County
Jessica Sanders, Bell County
Bella Noe, Harlan County
Torri Mitchell, Harlan
Brooklyn Massingill, Harlan County
Kelli Smith, Bell County
Katrina Johnson, Bell County
Kayla Bruner, North Laurel
Lindsay Branson, Harlan County
Jordan Brock, Harlan
Emma Bianchi, Harlan
Katie Reynolds, South Laurel
Ashton Bridges, North Laurel
Kameryn Ashurst, Corbin
Coach of the year
Derrick Akal, Harlan
Predictions for 2014-2015
(Players are listed by their grades in 2015)
1. Bell County — Until they lost to Corbin in the semifinals, the Lady Cats were the region favorite and will enter the 2014-2015 in the same position with only one starter graduating. You can be sure the pressure will be intense for Bell to win its first regional championship before 6-0 guard Maci Morris moves on to the University of Kentucky.
Point guard Jessica Sanders will also be back for her senior season. Juniors Kelli Smith, a 5-8 forward, Katrina Johnson, a 5-7 guard, and Sarah Collins, a 5-10 forward, will likely round out the starting lineup. Junior guard Allison Howard and sophomore guard Caleigh Collett are among the leading candidates to fill key reserve roles. Junior guard Kaylia Hoskins and sophomore forwards Alex Brock and Bethany Miracle also return.
2. Harlan — Breakout seasons by guard Jordan Brock and forward Emma Bianchi, the region’s top two freshmen in 2014, helped the Lady Dragons exceed expectations and put themselves in position to enter the 2015 season as one of the regional favorites with only one starter graduating.
Torri Mitchell, the region’s top sixth man last season, will likely replace Jourdan Ledford in the backcourt and team with Masie Charles, another returning starter, to give Harlan a senior tandem on the wings. Junior Shanae Thomas and sophomores Madelynn Henson and Callie Wilson will also see action.
Kaitlin Jenkins a 5-9 junior, returns in the post for the Lady Dragons, alongside Bianchi. There is also plenty of depth inside with 5-8 junior Katie King and 5-9 freshman Mackenzie King also returning, along with 5-8 sophomore Leah Evans.
3. Harlan County — The Lady Bears missed the regional tournament for only the second time in school history with an overtime loss to Harlan and will again be locked in a tough district with Bell County and Harlan both bringing back four starters.
Harlan County returns only two starters, but senior Bella Noe and junior Brooklyn Massingill will both likely be among the region’s top 10 players and will team with sixth man Lindsay Branson, a junior, to form one of the region’s best backcourts. The Lady Bears will also bring up several players from the region’s top freshman team, including 5-11 freshman center Kaylea Gross, who saw extensive varsity action as an eighth grader. Kaitlin Evans, a 5-10 sophomore who started last summer before suffering an injury, could team with Gross in the frontcourt.
There are numerous other candidates to fill out the lineup, including senior guards Bridgett Bennett and Lauren Smith, freshman forward Breann Turner and freshman guards Rebecca Middleton and Noah Canady.
4. Clay County — Depth was a problem for the Lady Tigers last year, and even coach James Burchell admitted in the regional tournament after a semifinal loss to Harlan that his team had only four scoring options. Only three remain following the graduation of forward Sara Robinson, but those three are good players, including senior point guard Ajaycia Cotton, 6-0 senior center Courtney Woods and 5-9 junior forward Kelli Roberts.
Junior guard Taluara Mathis returned to Clay after transferring to North Laurel, but whether she returns to the basketball team is undecided. Kashia Jackson, also a junior guard, moved into the lineup after Mathis left. Sophomores Kayleigh Hicks and Kennedy Hicks could provide depth in the post.
5. Corbin — No one was hit harder by graduation than the two-time defending champions, who will lose four standout guards.
Natalye Gallagher, a 5-10 senior, returns in the post where she will likely be joined by either 5-10 senior Meghann Blackburn or 5-9 senior Kaitlyn Waddle.
The Corbin backcourt will be entirely new but will still be very solid with two juniors, Jaclyn Jewell and Melanie Wilson, who would have started for most teams in the region last year, taking over for the Wilson sisters. Kameryn Ashurst, one of the region’s top freshmen, will likely round out the unit.
6. Whitley County — Much like Corbin, Whitley was hurt by graduation. The Lady Colonels will lose three of the region’s top 15 players in guard Brandi Smith, center Kandace Craig and wing Maria Johnson.
A senior-dominated group will likely fill out the lineup with seniors Hallie Jones and Taylor Dingess returning to the backourt, likely to be joined by standout freshman Abbey Estes. Senior forward Savanna Sizemore will also move into the lineup. The starting center job appears up for grabs with junior Emily Vanderpool and freshman Madison Centers among the candidates.
7. North Laurel — Everybody is back for the Lady Jaguars, who showed improvement last season but weren’t ready to compete with the region’s elite teams. Perhaps this is the year with senior guard Hannah Gray returning, along with 5-11 junior center Makayla Sexton, 5-9 junior point guard Kayla Bruner, 5-7 sophomore forward Ashton Bridges and 5-9 freshman guard Hannah Lawson. Freshman guard Madison Shepherd could be a future star for North and played a key role last year as both a starter and reserve.
8. South Laurel — Regional champs in 2008, the Lady Cardinals have fallen on hard times in recent years and won only eight games last year. Improvement should begin next season with only one player graduating. Guard Brittany Vandeventer and 5-10 center Morgan Madden return for their senior seasons. Katie Reynolds, a 5-10 forward, is one of several sophomores coming back.
9. Middlesboro — The Lady Jackets should continue improving despite being the youngest team in the region. Future all-stater Blair Green, a 6-1 wing, will again team with junior point guard Bailey Hensley in the backcourt. Sophomore guard Morgan Thompson, freshman guard Hannah Warren and 5-8 freshman center Malorie Carter moved into the starting lineup by the end of the season Eighth-grade guard Jamayha Poe and 5-10 freshman center Brenna Voges will also be in the mix.
10. Pineville — A run to the regional All “A” Classic finals, which included wins over Williamsburg and Lynn Camp and a two-point loss to Harlan, was the highlight of the season for the Lady Lions, who fell apart down the stretch and closed the season with eighth straight losses.
The Lady Lions lose their best player, guard Devin Enix, to graduation, but everyone else comes back, including senior point guard Emily Mullins, senior forward Rachel Barnes, junior guard Erica Gambrell and freshman forward Jill Enix.
Best of the rest:
Lynn Camp — With three starters graduating, including center Jessica May and guards Heather Wilson and Merita Burke, the Lady Cats aren’t likely to come close to their 22-win total from last season. But Lynn Camp should continue to contend in a less than powerful 51st District with senior point guard Miranda Miller returning, along with sophomore wing Brooklyn Bryant. Senior forward Breanna Hollin and 5-8 junior center Breanna White are probable starters inside with senior Destiny Hill rounding out the backcourt.
Knox Central — The Lady Panthers struggled through a five-win season with a sophomore-dominated lineup. Leading scorer and rebounder Tyra McNiel, a 6-1 center, is the only graduation loss, but whether anyone else is ready to fill that role will determine if Knox Central can return to the top of the 51st District. Returning for their junior seasons are guards Cassie Hale, Taylor Patterson, Melanie Gregory and Megan Wagers and 6-0 center Mariah Barrett. Toni McCombs, an eighth-grade guard, averaged over six points a game last season and will hard to keep out of the lineup. Freshmen Maddie Pennington, Abby Mills and Madison Taylor will also vie for starting jobs.
Barbourville — The two-time defending 51st District champions will have to start over with five seniors graduating. Madison Hicks, a 5-10 freshman forward, was a starter last year before being sidelined by a knee injury. Guard Whitney Brown and 5-9 forward Anna Daniels, both freshmen, are also probable starters next fall.
Williamsburg — The Lady Jackets haven’t been a factor in the 50th District or All “A” Classic for several years and don’t figure to be among the favorites in either next year after winning only six games in 2014. Forwards Haley Harris and Marah Crusenberry will return for their senior seasons, and 5-3 juniors Lexie Boggs and Erin Maxey are probable starters in the backcourt.
Jackson County — Senior guard Kelsey Belt and 5-10 senior center Chelsey Ball are back to lead the Lady Generals, who are continuing to rebuild a decade after dominating the region with Sarah Elliott and company. Junior forward Sierra Crowe and junior guard Taylor Huff also return.
Oneida Baptist —Under coach Ryan Cordle, the Lady Mountaineers have made steady progress in three years and more than doubled their win total from a season ago with nine in 2014. That improvement should continue with five starters returning for their junior seasons, led by point guard Madison Kehler, who averaged over 20 points per game, wing Paris Obike, who averaged 11.9, and 5-10 center Ashley Booher, who averaged 8.1.
Red Bird — Forward Kaitlin Berry and guard Katie Fee, both seniors, are back to lead the Lady Cardinals. Sophomore guards Kaley Collett and DaShay Hoskins also return.