John Lewis is hoping his Harlan County Black Bears can surprise him again.
After seeing his team suffer through heavy graduation losses in 2013 and 2014, Lewis wasn’t sure the Bears could continue to play at a high level in 2015. With a 22-8 record last spring, the Bears exceeded the expectations of most until they were upended by Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament finals, then fell apart defensively and offensively in an 8-0 loss to North Laurel in the 13th Region Tournament.
The Bears now find themselves in rebuilding mode again with a roster that features only four seniors.
“I still think we’re rebuilding, especially at the plate and in the field,” Lewis said. “We have some depth at pitching, but most of them are young. We have some who will be thrown to the dogs. Our schedule is rough.”
Without the power of past seasons in the lineup, Lewis says being able to adjust to different types of pitching and being able to manufacture runs will be crucial to Harlan County’s success.
“We have to be able to adjust from an 85-miles-per-hour pitcher to one throwing 72,” he said. “That has killed us the last two years. We didn’t adjust to pitchers during tournament play.”
Lewis wants to see the Bears do a better job of capitalizing on opportunities.
“We have a lot of good bunters. We can play small ball,” Lewis said. “We also have to come through when we have ducks on the pond.”
Harlan County’s strength will again be its pitching, especially at the top of the rotation where junior lefthander Jared Sizemore established himself as one of the 13th Region’s best last year. Sizemore (8-1) was unbeatable last year until his defense let him down in a regional tournament loss.
“I felt every time Jared went out there our confidence as a team was real high,” Lewis said. “He had a great season and is throwing harder now.”
Gage Burkhart, a senior lefthander who was 4-2 last year, is also a very experienced pitcher.
“I think Gage pitched really well last year, especially toward the end of the season,” Lewis said.
A pair of sophomore righthanders, Cameron Nease and Caleb Carmical, are also expected to see extensive action on the mound, along with junior Josh Jordan and freshmen Benjamin Lewis, Gabe Price and Garry Henson.
“They all throw great. They are on all on track,” Lewis said. “We have a lot of kids who can throw some innings. Pitching is huge in high school, and most teams have one. When you have two or three, that’s pretty good. I feel good with what we have right now.”
One reason for the Bears’ success through the years has been their excellent play behind the plate. Tyler Boggs started there the first five years of the school, then Brendan Rutherford took over in 2014 and is a three-year starter as a junior.
“He has to be the general back there. I think he learned a lot playing on a summer team in Lexington. He learned a lot about the expectations for a catcher,” Lewis said. “He has done a great job hitting. I may lead him off this year.”
Lewis is also impressed by the play of eight-grader Tyler Casolari.
“He has a great arm and is tough and talented,” Lewis said. “He could step in there if needed. I don’t worry as much about catching now, because I also have my son, Ben (Lewis), there, as well as Dylan Cornett.”
Sizemore will start at first base when he isn’t pitching. Known best for his skills on the mound, Sizemore was one of the team’s best hitters through a stretch last season and could provide some much-needed power this year.
“He’s improved a lot on his hitting and his overall agility. The drills we do have made him quicker. He’s improved a ton,” Lewis said.
Sharing time at second base again will be senior Trey Early and junior Sean Johnson.
“Trey has improved. He hit the ball well toward the end of the season last year. He works hard, but he still needs to work on his lateral movement,” Lewis said. “Sean has increased his quickness a lot. I really look for Sean to step up this year, both in the field and at the plate. He could also play shortstop or third base.”
Cornett, a senior who played third base last year, is expected to share time at shortstop with Johnson. Cornett, a football standout, provides speed and strength to the lineup but will need to more consistent defensively for the Bears to have a good season.
“Dylan is a utility player who could play any position on the field, even catcher,” Lewis said. “Dylan is a good base runner. He’s real quick. He can bunt and beat out infield hits.”
Nease, a sophomore, is the early favorite at third base, but both Cornett and Johnson are also in the mix.
“Cameron has improved his quickness a little,” Lewis said. “He has a big job at third base, to field bunts and knock the ball down. I think he’s starting to grow up a little and understand his role.”
Carmical, a sophomore, is expected to move into the lineup in center field.
“Caleb runs like a deer,” Lewis said. “He really covers a lot of ground. He’s improved at the plate and has gotten a lot stronger. I want him to be a little more vocal in the outfield and take over on balls that might be in no man’s land. He has to take control.”
Burkhart will start in the outfield when he’s not pitching and is one of the team’s top hitters.
“Gage is definitely my strongest hitter. He sees the ball well and can shoot it up the middle or to the opposite field,” Lewis said. “I’m looking forward to him being our power hitter.”
There are numerous candidates in right field, led by Cornett and Johnson, depending on who is pitching. Several freshmen could also see action there, including Lewis and Henson.
Will Scott provides depth at first base, and freshman Gabe Price will plays several infield positions.
“Those four subs will play a lot and probably a lot early,” Lewis said
Harlan County has made seven straight trips to the region tournament, and Lewis expects an eighth this May despite what could be a slow start.
“I felt last year was going to be a rebuilding year, but they surprised everybody in eastern Kentucky,” said Lewis. “I think we could be pretty good again before it’s over.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134