Following an unexpected late-season run to a 52nd District title last May, the Harlan Green Dragons know they’ve lost the element of surprise as they open the 2016 season.
“We’re no homecoming team anymore like we used to be, or a Senior Night team,” said Harlan coach Robbie Burns with a laugh.
Harlan brings back several key players from last year’s 18-20 squad, but the Dragons lost much of their power with the graduation of Ben Abraham, Tye Patrick and Jordan Turbyfill. Burns hopes to overcome the reduced power with improved speed and defense, plus more experienced pitching.
“I think we have a better team this year than last year,” Burns said. “We have better pitching and a little more depth. If we can put some runs on the board, we’ll be fine. I’ve always said if you can put 10 runs on the board you can beat anybody. We had a pretty good defensive team last year.”
The Dragons’ strength on offense should be at the top of the order with junior center fielder Noah Busroe and senior shortstop Caleb Hogue returning to the top two spots in the order.
“Noah has great speed. He can cover so much ground. He covers three quarters of the field basically. We’ll use him all over the field,” Burns said. “Caleb is looking good. He can do it all. He’s a coach on the field.”
Nick Jarvis, a senior who had a strong first season with the Dragons after transferring from Harlan County, is back at catcher. He had two doubles against Perry Central in the Dragons’ opener last week and appears to be the Dragons’ best hope for consistent power.
“He is a good hitter with good power and a good arm,” Burns said. “He’s a good field leader. He got some big hits for us last year, and he’s bigger and stronger this year. He’s also a great kid who will do whatever you ask.”
Burns hopes he can find some power at first base where junior Austin WIlson and senior Austin Fee will split time. Fee will also serve as a designated hitter and played there in the Dragons’ loss to Perry Central.
“Austin Wilson has started there a couple of years and has a good stick and a good glove. He’s a good player. I think playing football this past year helped him get in shape,” Burns said. “Austin Fee hasn’t played since eighth grade, but he’s a big, strong kid who has been hitting the ball well.”
Andrew Saylor, a junior, is back at second base. Saylor could also see action at shortstop when Hogue pitches.
“He’s a good left-handed stick who hits the ball well and had some power,” Burns said. “He’s a good fielder, and he’s a good baseball guy.”
Sammy Moore, a senior, is back at third base where he provides steady defense.
“Sammy is a good glove,” Burns said. “He’s dependable and a great third baseman. We’re still working on his hitting
Brendan Miller, Kilian Ledford and Pedro Roman are expected to split time in left field.
“Brendan has been hitting the ball real well,” Burns said. “Kilian can play anywhere and is a great prospect. Pedro has a very good arm.”
Antonio Roman, a freshman who had a big season in middle school last year for New Harlan, is the early favorite in right field, but he can also play shortstop or second base.
“He has a good stick,” Burns said. “Antonio also moves pretty well and can help us in several places.”
The Harlan pitching staff was a pleasant surprise last year and brings back its ace. Hogue posted a 9-4 record last year, closing with five straight wins, including over Middlesboro in the district tournament and Barbourville in the regional. He lost this year’s season opener against Perry Central as struggled with command coming back from knee surgery.
“Caleb has been a great pitcher for us. We have always been able to depend on him to keep us in games,” Burns said.
Saylor, a junior, was also huge in the Dragons’ postseason run as he claimed the 5-4 win against Harlan County in the district finals. He earned three straight wins before falling to South Laurel in the regional semifinals, finishing with a 4-4 record on the mound.
“Andrew has great control, pinpoint control,” Burns said.
Wilson, a junior, is also back after being a workhorse for the Dragons on the mound last year.
“Austin also has good control,” Burns said. “He pitched a lot last year.”
Holden Williams, a sophomore who wasn’t with the team last year, is expected to provide a boost to the staff, along with Ledford, a star for the middle school team last season.
“We just have to keep Holden under control. He’ll be a plus for us,” Burns said. “Kilian has a good arm. He also needs to improve his control.”
Burns hopes the Dragons’ pitching will pick up where it left off last year after struggling early in the season.
“I think our defense will help our pitching,” Burns said. “We should have a good defensive team on the field every night.”
Even though the Dragons beat both teams in last year’s district tournament, Harlan County and Middlesboro are the early favorites in the 52nd District.
“I think we can compete in the district,” Burns said. “Harlan County also has a good team, and they still have Jared (Sizemore). Middlesboro is always tough, and they still have McCullough. Bell County is down a little this year.
“I expect us to be on top. I know our kids have a little confidence now, and that always helps.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134