For the first time this century, the 13th Region representative at the state tournament last March came from the 52nd District when Bell County made the first trip in school history last March.
Odds are the 52nd District could make it two in a row this year with three of the top four teams in the annual Cats Pause/Harlan Daily Enterprise preseason coaches poll coming from the southern part of the region.
Harlan, the region runner-up each of the past two years, was first in the poll with nine of 13 first-place votes and 62 points, just ahead of 49th District power North Laurel with two first-place votes and44 points. Harlan County, also of the 52nd District, was third with 36 points, and defending champ Bell County was fourth with 26 points. Corbin placed fifth with 21 points. Clay County, Whitley County, Knox Central, South Laurel and Oneida Baptist rounded out the top 10.
The following is our annual look at each team in the 13th Region:
NORTH LAUREL (19-11)
After several years of slowly climbing up the ladder of regional contenders, from six wins in 2013 to 19 last year, the Lady Jaguars suddenly find themselves as one of the favorites and are in position for their first district title since 1994 and the first regional championship in school history.
“It is different to have expectations. This group hasn’t had a whole lot of expectations on them, and it’s finally starting to come together,” coach Eddie Mahan said. “But at the same time, we haven’t won anything. We’re trying to make history for our school and that’s something we’re really working toward.”
Kayla Bruner (19.2, 8.0), a 5-11 senior guard, is ranked among the region’s elite players, but is far from a one-girl show. Hannah Lawson (10.4, 3.3) is a three-year starter at point guard, despite being only a sophomore. Sophomore guard Madison Sheppard (11.1, 3.4) and 5-11 senior center Makayla Sexton (3.4, 5.6) also return to a deep and talented lineup.
Junior forward Ashton Bridges (5.6, 2.8) and eighth-grade guard Gracie Jervis are the early favorites for the lone open starting job. Senior forward Ashley Rains (3.6, 2.7) and eighth-grade guard Isabell Gray will also see extensive action.
Scoring has not been a problem for the Lady Jaguars with several weapons on offense, which means defense is the focus of Mahan’s efforts this fall as he tries to help his team take the next step.
“We have to get better defensively,” he said. “Last year we just tried to outscore people, and that’s something I’ve never thought was successful long-term, especially in the district and regional tournaments. We’ve got to get better defensively, especially man to man. We’re focused in on that right now.
Keeping all their key players in the lineup every game is another factor in the Lady Jaguars’ success.
“We can’t control health,” Mahan said, “and that’s something that has hurt us in the past.”
CLAY COUNTY (25-7)
For the first time in a long time, the Lady Tigers won’t be one of the more physical teams in the region and will also feature one of the youngest lineups in program history.
“Most of our kids can shoot the ball pretty well, so this will be one of our best outside shooting teams,” said coach James Burchell. “We’ll play a little different that we have in the past. We always pounded it inside, but we don’t have that now. We’ll try to spread you out and shoot 3s.
The Lady Tigers will count on 5-9 senior Kelli Roberts (13.6, 6.7) to provide both leadership and a steadying influence at point guard as she shifts from forward to replace Jayci Cotton. Eighth-grader Kaylee Mathis (6.9, 2.4) and freshmen Shelby Phillips (3.4) and Kimberlyn Mills will provide much of the shooting. Summer Parker, a 5-9 freshman, will start in the post.
“We did pretty well with (the new style) this summer, especially when we had everyone there,” he said.
ONEIDA BAPTIST (16-13)
From two wins in his first season to 16 last year, the Lady Mountaineers have come a long way in five years under the leadership of Ryan Cordle, including a trip to last year’s 13th Region All “A” Classic finals.
The success has caught the attention of opposing coaches, who ranked OBI among the region’s top 10 in the Cats Pause poll for the first time in program history. Senior guard Madison Kehler (19.5, 3.6) became the first girls player in school history to be ranked among the top 10 players.
“I think they have pretty high expectations for themselves,” Cordle said. “As a group, they’ve worked hard the last three or four years. The top five have a great chemistry and understand our system. They work hard and are great leaders.”
That top five also includes 5-10 senior Ashley Booher (11.8, 10.2), 5-7 senior forward Chinonso Ibe (3.7, 3.9), 5-3 junior guard Mardorie Flahn (6.1, 2.7) and 5-4 freshman guard Eileen Phocas.
Finding depth beyond that top five is the primary objective in the preseason.
“Our biggest thing now is developing a couple of players off the bench,” Cordle said. “We feel really good about our top five. We feel on any given night our top five can play with anybody, but if we can get in foul trouble we’re in trouble unless our bench improves.”
JACKSON COUNTY (8-20)
After more than doubling their win total from the previous year and playing North Laurel tough in the 49th District Tournament, the Lady Generals appear to be a team headed in the right direction and one that should continue to improve with only one senior, 5-10 forward Cierra Crowe (13.9, 6.2).
“I think we have nine girls who could start,” said Jackson County coach Bryan Harris.
Finding a point guard is Harris’ primary objective in the preseason.
“We don’t have anybody who I would call our primary ball handler,” he said. “It can be by committee, but there has to be somebody that everybody looks to in critical situations
Sophomore Haley Adkins (4.5, 2.5) will get the first shot at playing the point.
“We think Haley will be much improved. We just have to keep her on the floor,” Harris said.
Patricia Ford (7.4, 5.1), a 5-8 junior, and Lexis Creech (9.7, 9.1), a 5-10 freshman, are the probable starters inside, with 5-8 freshman Raelon Creech expected to play a wing.
Freshman guard Sara Mulligan (4.0, 2.3) will also compete for a starting job along with three players back with the team this year, 5-10 sophomore Morgan Vickers and 5-7 freshmen Cherokee Hammonds and Paige Jones.
RED BIRD (3-20)
Tonya Asher is back at the helm of the Red Bird program and expects big improvement with four starters back, led by junior point guard Kaley Collett (9.7), senior wing Allison Smith (2.7), junior wing Kassidy Collett (2.6) and 5-10 sophomore forward Kara Wilson (3.5, 7.0).
“I’m real excited about this year,” Asher said. “We have a little more depth than we’ve had, and we have some height. We also have some experience with eight of our 13 having played before. I’m excited to be back in the gym with the girls, and I think they’re excited too.”
Bethany Austin, a 6-0 sophomore from Florida, is expected to take over at center. Top reserves include 5-10 junior center Anmoul Kaur, 5-10 freshman forward Makenna Caldwell and 5-5 sophomore guard Princesse Panza.
After back-to-back regional titles the previous two years, the Lady Hounds spent a season reloading and fell in the first round of the regional tourney to the Harlan team they beat in the finals the year before. Corbin expects to be back in the mix this season with a senior-dominated lineup returning.
Corbin will feature one of the region’s best backcourts with seniors Jaclyn Jewell (13.8, 2.8) and Melanie Wilson (11.8, 4.1) joined by sharp-shooting junior Kameryn Ashurst (6.1). Seniors Candice Gulley (4.8, 2.3), a 5-10 forward, and Morgan Philpot (3.5, 2.5), a 6-0 center, are expected to team in the post.
Juniors Tori Baker, Ashley Andrews and Sara Beth Price provide quality depth, along with sophomore Cora Stevens and freshman Harleigh Grubb.
“I’m pleased with the way we’ve progressed,” said Corbin coach Jason McDaniel. “Defining roles and jockeying for position in rotation can be a grind early, but we are farther along than I anticipated. We are relatively small height wise but pretty skilled and versatile. These girls play extremely hard each day and are determined. We still have a long way to to go, but I feel we will be right in the mix to compete for district and region championships.”
WHITLEY COUNTY (20-11)
Very few teams have been hit as hard by graduation as the Lady Colonels the last two years, and first-year coach David Estes will try to stay competitive while rebuilding following the graduation of three starters.
“I think we’ll be a team that improves dramatically over the course of the season, and I expect us to have an opportunity to reach our goals at season’s end.”
Estes’ daughter, Abbey, a 5-4 sophomore who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will run the Whitley offense. Sophomore guard Sierra Feltner (8.3, 4.3) and 5-8 senior forward Emily Vanderpool (2.9, 2.2) will be counted on for big seasons as the returning starters.
Candidates to join Estes in the backcourt include sophomores Hannah Clear and Gracie Nichols and freshmen Sarah Bolton and Kaelie Frazier (4.8).
“Offensively, there’s no one player that we will depend on,” Estes said. “We’ll have to have a team approach to reach our goals. Defensively, it comes down to toughness and want to. Being a good defensive team is more of a mentality than a skill.”
SOUTH LAUREL (7-19)
Troy Thomas takes over at the helm of the Lady Cardinals with the hope of restoring South to its position as a perennial regional contender. South has struggled through four straight losing seasons.
“In this microwave society we live in everybody wants a quick fix,” Thomas said. “A lot of times it doesn’t work that way. Patience and a belief in what we are doing is what I want from the kids and the fans. At the end, hopefully, you’ll see progress.”
Three starters are back, led by junior forwards Katie Reynolds (6.4, 3.8) and Shelby Davis (9.2, 3.6) and sophomore guard Taylor Cromer (9.2, 3.2). Freshman forward Mariah Anders (3.2, 3.7) will also compete for a starting job, along with sophomore guard Becca Phelps, eighth-grade guard Ally Collett and freshman center Dianna Morgan.
“Sometimes having experience can become a great teacher and sometimes it can be overrated as well,” Thomas said. “Having a young team definitely helps with the learning process. Right now I’m not even sure who is going to start. I don’t emphasize things like that. We’re going to play a different style than people have seen at South Laurel. I think it will be a fun style and I will adjust to what type of talent I have. You have to coach the talent you have and make adjustments.”
SOUTH LAUREL (7-19)
Troy Thomas takes over at the helm of the Lady Cardinals with the hope of restoring South to its position as a perennial regional contender. Three starters are back, led by junior forwards Katie Reynolds (6.4, 3.8) and Shelby Davis (9.2, 3.6) and sophomore guard Taylor Cromer (9.2, 3.2). Freshman forward Mariah Anders (3.2, 3.7) will also compete for a starting job, along with sophomore guard Becca Phelps, eighth-grade guard Ally Collett and freshman center Dianna Morgan.
As the new coach of the Lady Jackets last season, Amanda Vermillion’s first task was changing her team’s attitude.
“It took me so long last year to get them in the routine of not settling for last, Vermillion said. “I wanted them to stop thinking it was OK to finish last in the district every year. These girls are athletic, they’re quick and I’m torturing them right now, especially my big girls, who had to play just about the entire game last year. This year, I think I have more depth.”
Led by 6-2 junior Sydney Tye (7.5, 13.1) and 6-0 sophomore Kelsey Tye (4.7, 5.3), the Lady Jackets have a frontcourt that should be able to hold its own with just about anyone in the 13th Region.
Kayla Gibson (12.8, 3.3), a 5-7 sophomore, is back at point guard, with freshman Lillie Abbott (2.3, 3.1) at one wing and eighth-graders Madison Chapman and Lillie Hall (2.8, 2.3) expected to share time at the other.
The Lady Jackets’ improved depth includes junior guards Shazenah Jackson and Jasmine Monhollen and 5-10 eighth-grade center Allyson Caddell.
“I think we’ll be able to sustain a good effort for more than a half because I have more people who can play and not be a big downgrade when they get in the game,” Vermillion said.
KNOX CENTRAL (14-10)
With everyone back from a squad that was likely the region’s most improved in 2015, the Lady Panthers are a team on the rise and could be ready to compete with the 13th Region heavyweights.
Senior guards Cassie Hale (10.0) and Taylor Patterson (7.4, 3.0) are joined by talented freshman Toni McCombs (7.2) in one of the region’s best backcourts. Madison Hicks (5.0. 3.4), a 5-10 sophomore, is a probable starter at forward. Maddie Pennington (8.6, 2.0), Abby Mills (2.8) and Madison Taylor (2.9, 3.6), all sophomores, are among the candidates to round out the lineup.
“We have all the girls back, so we’re looking forward to starting the season,” Knox Central coach Wendi Messer Hammonds said. “I think we’re ready. They worked hard in the summer. I think they’re used to my philosophy and my style of play. I think they have grown a lot.”
With four starters coming back and coach Jamie Mills back for his second season, the Lady Lions looked to be one of the region’s most improved teams in the summer.
“Last year we lost our two returning guards, when they transferred to Tennessee, and we didn’t have anyone who wanted to bring the ball down the floor,” Mills said. “They were just scared. They had never been in that position on the varsity level. They great a lot by the end of the season, and the summer helped them gain confidence. We are so far ahead of where we were last year. We don’t have to go over the basics every day.”
Sophomore guard Jill Enix (9.6, 7.0) is a three-year starters and one of the region’s top offensive players. Shayne Raftery (3.6, 3.8), a 6-3 senior, provides an imposing presence in the post. Back at forward are 5-6 junior Autumn Short (7.1, 6.0) and 5-8 senior Sophia Knuckles (5.8, 3.0). Sophomore Sarah Combs (6.2) is expected to take over at the point.
Senior forward Makayla Keyes provides depth, along with junior guard Morgan Thompson (6.3) and sophomore forwards Anna Howard (2.1) and Mackenzie Fuson.
“We have to understand the importance of defense and rebounding,” Mills said. “We gave too many teams last year too many offensive rebounds. We have to try to limit them to one shot.”
LYNN CAMP (15-12)
The Lady Cats have had a habit of playing their best basketball late in the year under veteran coach Richard Jones, just as they did last season in their run to the 51st District Tournament championship.
“I hope we can get back there, but Knox Central will be much improved, and I think Pineville will be much improved, too,” Jones said. “We have to get better every day. We’re starting two freshmen and will probably have four freshmen in our top seven players, so we have to get better.”
Lynn Camp features a strong inside-outside combination with 5-8 senior Breanna White (9.0, 4.3) back at center and 5-3 junior Brooklyn Bryant (10.6, 4.5) returning at point guard.
Bradi Coe (7.8), a 5-2 freshman, will join Bryant in the backcourt. Kesha Brock (3.0), a 5-7 junior, and Makenzie Grant, a 5-9 freshman, are the probable starters at forward.
Others in the mix for playing time are freshmen Molly White and Macie Miracle, sophomore Haylee Walker and eighth-grader Courtney Bowling.
“Our defense has to get better,” Jones said. “We have a few playing well right now, but we can’t by with just a few playing well. You win as a team and lose as a team. We can’t just have four or five playing hard. We also have to get healthy. We have two or three out right now with injuries.”
A rapid demise of the Lady Tigers’ basketball was expected with the loss of five starters and that was exactly what happened as Barbourville won only twice, both against Red Bird.
The good news is the Lady Tigers should start to show signs of improvement this season all their key players coming back.
“We’ve put in a lot of good work, and I think you’ll see a different team,” said second-year coach Brandon Simpson. “You’ll see a team that’s still growing and still young. We’ll still have some growing pains, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction.”
Anna Daniels (17.7, 8.2), a 5-11 sophomore forward, was one of the few brights spots for the Lady Tigers as she established herself as one of the region’s best young players.
“She will continue to lead us,” Simpson said. “She’s starting to get comfortable and instead of doing too much on her own she’s learning how work as a team player and not take all the responsibility on herself. She is continuing to grow as a player.”
Shelbie Jones (2.5, 4.3), a 5-9 sophomore center, also returns, along with eighth-grade guard Abbagail Smith (3.0), junior guard Jordyn Smith and sophomore guard Whitney Brown (5.4, 2.4).
Katie Shackleford and Kailee Smith, both 5-7 sophomores, could also work their way into the starting lineup, as could senior guard Natasha Helton.
After two straight trips to the regional finals, the Lady Dragons are in position for their first 13th Region title since winning back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999 as they bring back four starters and some key reserves/
“The last few years we expected to win, the girls work every day toward that, but the difference is we know that every night we will get everybody’s best,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “A couple of years ago, even though we expected to win, the teams we were playing didn’t expect us to win.”
Junior point guard Jordan Brock (17.1, 3.3) makes the Lady Dragons’ offense go with unmatched intensity and an ability to score off the dribble or from long range, but she’s far from the only threat. Senior guard Brooklyn Massingill (14.1, 7.3) is a five-year starter, including three years at Harlan County, and is one of the region’s best shooters. Emma Bianchi (7.4, 4.2), a 6-0 junior, is one of the most talented players in the region with the skills to play inside or outside. Mackenzie King (6.2,4.8), a 5-10 sophomore forward, is strong and aggressive around the basket. Senior center Katie King and senior guard Shanae Thomas (5.3) are the leading to candidates to round out the lineup
Depth is one of the few concerns for Harlan, a common problem for Class A schools. Sophomores Taylor Simpson, Brandi Haywood and Katelyn Burkhart are expected to provide an improved bench as they gain varsity experience.
HARLAN COUNTY (11-14)
No one in the region can match the Lady Bears’ size and depth, which is why last year’s post-Christmas meltdown is hard to explain. HCHS struggled after racing to a 7-1 start under first-year coach Debbie Green, a former Harlan all-state whose daughter, Blair (16.2, 4.8), a 6-1 guard, may be the state’s best sophomore with scholarship offers from numerous Division I schools.
“We have several kids who started last year and several others who played a lot. I think it’s safe to say this team has a high ceiling,” said the Harlan County coach. “It may not be pretty all the time, but they will get a whole lot better. This team plays hard and we have a lot of pieces to the puzzle.”
Kaylea Gross (10.4, 5.3), a 6-0 sophomore, is one of the region’s strongest players and leads a frontcourt that also includes 5-8 freshman Breann Turner (3.3, 3.2) and has 5-8 junior Leah Evans and 5-11 junior Kaitlin Evans (3.3, 3.9) providing quality depth.
The backcourt isn’t quite as settled beyond Green with juniors Rebecca Middleton (4.2) and Noah Canady the early favorites, but freshmen Reanna Middleton, Phebe McHargue and K.K. Johnson aren’t far behind.
Junior guard Hannah Gaw provides depth, along with 5-11 sophomore center Lainey Cox and 5-8 sophomore forwards Morgan Napier and Taylor Johnson.
BELL COUNTY (29-3)
Losing a Miss Basketball is never easy to overcome, but anyone writing off the Lady Cats after the graduation of Maci Morris and point guard Jessica Sanders would making a mistake.
Bell brings back a veteran that could include five seniors, led by 5-10 point guard Katrina Johnson (7.1, 4.1), 5-10 forward Sarah Collins (2.4, 2.3) and 6-0 center Zoe Taylor. Allison Howard (3.6), one of the region’s top defenders, will also start at guard.
Kelli Smith (8.2, 5.9), a 5-9 senior who suffered a broken leg late last season, will round out the lineup if she can return from complications following surgery. If Smith doesn’t make it back to the lineup, juniors Caleigh Collett, Alex Brock and Bethany Miracle will compete for the final starting job and provide depth.
“We played about 10 kids every game last year, so we have some experience back,” Bell County coach David Teague said. “The big thing for us is kids being in different roles than they were last year. Some kids are changing positions, and other kids are being asked to do more than they have in the past, both offensively and defensively. I’ll be interested to see how the kids adjust and how we grow and develop as the season goes along.”
Life is not easy if you’re a rebuilding basketball program in the 52nd District.
With three of the region’s top five teams in the 52nd, including preseason favorite Harlan, defending champ Bell County and a talent-filled Harlan County, Middlesboro coach Ron Edwards knows rebuilding the Lady Jackets will be a slow process.
“You have three great teams, plus the top player in the region in Jordan Brock, along with Katrina Johnson at Bell and Blair Green at Harlan County,” Edwards said. “You just have to try to go forward and keep working.”
Middlesboro’s rebuilding efforts were slowed when senior center Lauren Spurlock decided not to play and sophomore guard Jamayha Poe was sidelined for the season by a knee injury, but the transfer of senior guard Erica Gambrel should help.
Gambrel will be joined in the backcourt by senior point guard Bailey Hensley (7.2) and junior wing Bailey Brunsma (3.0), Jane Millett, a 5-9 junior center, and Hannah Warren (3.2, 3.0), a 5-7 sophomore guard, are expected to round out the lineup. Sophomore post players Malorie Carter and Brenna Voges are also in contention for starting jobs.
“We are farther along this year,” Edwards said. “We have some experience with Erica and some of our other girls. We just have to keep working and improving.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134