With four sophomores and a freshman expected to start, the Harlan County Black Bears will have a starting lineup younger than some junior varsity teams, but don’t expect any tears from around the region for the Lady Bears and their youth. Harlan County will feature one of the biggest and most talented teams in eastern Kentucky, led by a 2018 Miss Basketball candidate who has already received numerous Division I offers.
“I guess you could say it is like a JV lineup as far as age, but they don’t play like a JV team, plus they all have a year under their belts,” said Debbie Green, who enters her second season as coach. “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. 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.”
The Lady Bears must avoid the collapse of a year ago, when they finished 11-14 after a 7-1 start, to meet the lofty expectations. The beginning of the slide began when standout freshman Blair Green missed eight games with a leg injury, and the Lady Bears were never able to recover.
“I thought we had jelled together good early, but then Blair missed eight games and then when she came back we just were never the same team that we were when we started,” Green said. “But we only had one returning starter, and we had a lot of players without varsity experience. It’s hard to say what happened.”
Green, a 6-1 sophomore who enters her fourth year as a starter, will be the focus of opposing defenses every night. Green (16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last year) has already received Division I offers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Dayton and is drawing interest from Connecticut, Georgia and UCLA, among others.
“I need Blair to be my best leader. She has to be a driving force behind the team,” said Green of her star player and daughter. “She has a lot of pressure and responsibility on her, but I expect her to come out and put the team on her back. If someone takes her scoring away, she needs to have eight or nine assists and rebounds. She has to have an all-around game every night.”
Kaylea Gross (10.4, 5.3), a 6-foot sophomore, is among the region’s top centers in her second season as a starter.
“Kaylea is in much better shape and can run the floor as well as any post player in the region,” Green said. “She is a strong, physical player, and she can step out and hit a shot
Breann Turner (3.3, 3.2), a 5-8 freshman who was a part-time starter in 2015, is expected to take over at forward.
“Bree’s basketball IQ is off the charts,” Green said. “She makes the players around her better. I love the mix of Bree, Kaylea and Blair in there together. They complement each other well.”
Rebecca Middleton (4.2), a sophomore, was also a part-time starter a year ago and is probably the Lady Bears’ best 3-point shooter.
“Becca is a streaky shooter who can take over a game,”: Green said. “She goes hard to the basket. She gives 100 percent the whole game. We just need her to be a little more consistent with her shooting,”
Point guard remains the biggest area of concern for the Lady Bears following the graduation of Bella Noe. Sophomore Noah Canady is the early favorite, but freshmen Phebe McHargue and K.K. Johnson will also see action, giving Green the option of alternating players at that spot.
“I’m trying to get Noah to be more confident and believe in herself. She has to take on a lot of responsibility. Noah needs to be able to handle pressure and direct the team. It would different if she had to do it by herself, but she has a lot of help,” Green said. “Phebe and K.K. are quick and smart. They are right there. They are all interchangeable. I have a lot of confidence in all three.”
Another freshman guard, Reanna Middleton, could be the team’s most improved player and will provide a big lift off the bench at either wing spot.
“Reanna is one of the more athletic kids on the team,” Green said. “She is extremely strong and can be a very good shooter. She’s an athlete. The sky is the limit for that kid.”
The Lady Bears have experienced depth in the post with 6-0 junior Kaitlin Evans (3.3, 3.9) at center and 5-8 junior Leah Evans at forward.
“Kate is one of the hardest working players I have. She needs to do the little things. She does a good job on defense and rebounding. We’re working on her scoring,” Green said. “Leah has a great outside shot. She is a battler. Leah and Kate don’t mind to do any of the dirty work.”
Sophomore forwards Lainey Cox, Taylor Johnson and Morgan Napier provide quality depth and will be leaders on the junior varsity team. Junior guard Hannah Gaw will also see action.
Green expects the Lady Bears to be much improved, and she knows they will have to be in a district that includes the 13th Region favorite (Harlan) and the defending champion (Bell County). All three were ranked among the top five teams in the region in preseason polls.
“I think Harlan should be the favorite. They’ve been there and done that twice. They will be hard to beat,” Green said. “Even if I have a UConn player, they have players who have played together since fourth grade. That means a lot when they have played together so long and know each other so well. Jordan (Brock) is a phenomenal point guard. They have (Brooklyn) Massingill, who has been playing a long time.
“Bell County lost 35 points, but they have five seniors back who can score. They learned a lot playing with (2015 Miss Basketball) Maci Morris. Those kids can play.”
Green is looking for more aggressiveness this year from her team against their 52nd District rivals.
“We have to come out and compete and try be a No. 1 seed,” she said.
Green is doing her best to get the Lady Bears ready with a schedule that includes the WYMT Mountain Classic and tournaments at Conner and Hilton Head, S.C., as well as games against 12th Region favorite Mercer County, 4th Region power Glasgow, 14th Region favorite Knott Central, defending 14th Region champ Letcher Central and most of the top teams in the 13th Region.
“We have a really good schedule with some games we should win and some that will be really tough,” Green said. “I’m excited because I think we will be really competitive and give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134