When they made it to the regional finals in 2014, the Harlan Lady Dragons were happy to be there and surprised just about everyone in the process.
When they made it to the regional finals in 2015, the Harlan Lady Dragons expected to be there but didn’t surprise many when they lost to Bell County and Miss Basketball Maci Morris.
If they can make it back to the regional finals in 2016, which is expected for the preseason favorite, the Harlan Lady Dragons won’t be happy unless they can change the way the last two regional championship games ended.
“The last few years we expected to win, the girls worked 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.”
The Lady Dragons were the coaches’ pick as the top team in the 13th Region, but it’s close with North Laurel and two of Harlan’s 52nd District rivals, Harlan County and Bell County, in a tightly packed top five that also includes Corbin.
“I’m going into my sixth year and it as wide open as I can remember. We have three teams in our district who are capable of winning this region and also one of the best players (Blair Green) in the country in our district at HC,” Akal said. “Clay is always tough and well coached. The last time we faced North Laurel we lost and Corbin, South Laurel and Whitley will be teams that I expect to see in the mix. So, we are in the mix along with several other teams.”
Harlan’s rise to prominence in the 13th Region came with the emergence of star point guard Jordan Brock (17.1 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game last season), a gritty 5-7 junior with tremendous leadership skills. Brock, an all-state candidate who is ranked as the top player in the 13th Region, may be the region’s best ball-handler and one of the best shooters, especially with the game on the line.
“She spearheads everything we do. Her competitive spirit, I think, rubs off on the rest of the team,” Akal said. “Jordan is a combination of talent, toughness and competitive spirit that you don’t see much of anymore. I’m glad she is on this team.”
Senior Brooklyn Massingill (14.1, 3.3), a five-year starter who has already played in three regional championship games (including one with Harlan County), helps Brock with ball handling and is also a good perimeter shooter.
“Brooklyn has played in three regional finals, at two schools, so she’s a proven winner,” Akal said. “She’s a competitor and is an excellent defender and shooter. Having two players like Brooklyn and Jordan is rare.”
Emma Bianchi (7.4, 4.2), a 6-foot junior who is as athletic as anyone in the region, will spend more time playing away from the basket at wing, where Akal hopes to capitalize on her skills as both a defender and shooter.”
“Emma does everything on the floor. She will have 10 points, eight rebounds and a couple of assists and steals after just about every game,” Akal said. “She is one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached, boys or girls. We are looking for Emma to step up on the offensive end, help with ball handling and score a little more, along with everything she’s always done. She can guard just about anyone on the floor.”
With Bianchi playing more outside, the Harlan inside attack will likely feature the King sisters. Mackenzie King (6.1, 4.9), a 5-10 sophomore, and Katie King, a 5-8 senior, give the Lady Dragons perhaps the most physical post tandem in the region.
“Kenzie has become a team leader. She is a good shooter and rebounds well, all the things I expect post players to do. I think she will surprise people this year with her offensive ability,” Akal said. “Katie does the things that don’t show up in the paper. She is like the quarterback of our defense. She understands our concepts and what we’re trying to do. She is like another coach on the floor. The King girls are rough and physical and tough.”
Shanae Thomas (5.3), a 5-5 senior, will also compete for a starting job and will be counted on to provide another perimeter threat.
“She gives us experience, and she can space the floor out with her shooting. She can knock down 3s,” Akal said. “Shanae is also a pretty good passer who can find other people on the team.”
Depth remains the biggest concern for Akal, but he likes the improvement he’s seen in that area with sophomores Taylor Simpson and Katelyn Burkhart providing help at guard and 5-10 sophomore Brandi Haywood seeing action at forward.
“Taylor will play a lot. She’s turned into a good shooter, and she’s a smart player and good defender. We’re looking for her to provide some of what Masie Charles did last year,” Akal said. “Brandi will become important for us inside. She is long and athletic like Emma. She can block some shots and is improving offensively.”
With Brock and Massingill good for big games on almost a nightly basis, offense is rarely a problem for the Lady Dragons. Akal is looking for improvement in other areas to help Harlan end its season in the state tournament.
“We have to do a better job of defense and rebounding,” he said. “We also need to stay healthy, which is always important.”
Harlan will face one of the toughest schedules in the state for a Class A school with the WYMT Mountain Classic and Bullitt East tourney, along with games against 13th Region powers North Laurel, Clay County, Harlan County and Bell County, along with defending 14th Region champ Letcher Central
“After my first year I told the athletic director I wanted to play the best teams in the region,” Akal said. “I want the girls to have a competitive mindset no matter the size of the school, and I thinks it’s paid off so far because we are being mentioned amongst the best in the region, not just the best in the All A region.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134