Coming off a 27-8 season that set a school record for victories, the Harlan County Lady Bears are hungry for an even better 2016 with a lineup loaded with experience.
“I’ve tried to toughen the schedule even more, and I did. This is the toughest schedule Lady Bear softball has ever played,” said coach Tim McElyea. “We have two or three big tournaments and will face some of the Lexington teams. You only get better by playing good teams. I think we’re up to the challenge now.”
Harlan County featured one of the top 1-2 combinations on the mound, and both are only sophomores.
Destinee Jenkins posted a 20-7 record in her second year as the Lady Bears’ ace, striking out 103 in 151 innings with an earned run of average of 2.36 while holding opposing hitters to a .174 average.
“Destinee is a power pitcher who locates well and fields her position well,” McElyea said. “She’s a bulldog out there. She’s had over 20 wins the last two years.”
Kacie Russell was also solid with a 7-1 record and an earned run average of 1.92. She struck out 60 in 69 innings and held hitters to a .173 average.
“Kacie has a good changeup. She’s a great complement to Destinee,” McElyea said. “She changes speed well and can help us on the mound.”
The Harlan County offense should also be strong with Jenkins and Russell again expected to play key roles.
Russell, who plays first base, is one of the region’s top run producers as she hit three homers and drove in 40 runs in 2015, both team highs. She also led the Lady Bears with a .491 average and was first in hits with 56 and doubles with 22.
“Kacie was top 10 in the state last year in doubles and really squared it up and hit it well. She broke Lady Bears records in RBI and doubles and had a great batting average,” McElyea said. “She’s a great gap hitter.”
Jenkins plays second base when she’s not on the mound and is one of the team’s best hitters with an average of .397 last year in a team-high 126 at bats. Jenkins is good at moving runners over from the second spot in the order with seven sacrifice bunts.
“Destinee likes to hit it up the middle,” McElyea said. “She doesn’t get cheated at the plate. She’s very aggressive and will put it in play.”
Farren Clark, a speedy senior third baseman, hit .387 last year with 13 stolen bases and a team-high 32 runs in 2015
“Farren is the total package. She has good speed, has a good glove and can bunt,” McElyea said. “She’s excited about her senior year, and I’ve seen good things out of her already.”
Jessie Johnson, a junior, is back at shortstop after hitting .352 last year with a team best .545 on-base percentage, which was aided by 15 walks.
“She has the best arm on the team and came a long way last year at shortstop,” McElyea said. “She also improved at the plate.”
Tia King, a senior who started in right field last year, is expected to take over for Savannah Sergent at catcher. King hit .347 last spring and drove in 33 runs, providing some power in the middle of the HCHS lineup.
“Tia is also a power hitter, from the left side. She looks like a good defensive catcher, but we’re working on her throwing,” McElyea said. “I think she will have a better year at the plate.”
McElyea will have some good athletes to choose from to fill out an outfield that will again feature junior Haley Blakley in left field and sophomore Lainey Cox in right. Blakley hit .376 with 25 RBIs in 101 at bats. Cox hit .345 and was tied for third with 10 stolen bases.
“Blakley hit the ball well all year. She’s a good contact hitter who made some great plays in left field last year. She has a good arm,” McElyea said. “Lainey covers a lot of ground. She can play right or center. She is a contact hitter and a good bunter.”
Nikki Creech, a freshman who made an immediate impression last year in center field, will be counted on to provide speed at the top of the order.
“She hits the ball to all fields and is a great base runner,” McElyea said. “She has great speed.”
McElyea called second base “a tossup” with Hannah Johnson, Shawnee Cress and Kate Evans among the candidates to play there when Jenkins pitches. Autumn Dunaway and Evans can play first base when Russell pitches.
HCHS fell to Middlesboro in last year’s 52nd District Tournament finals and is expected to battle the Lady Jackets again this year. Harlan County should also be among the regional favorites, even though North Laurel and South Laurel remain on top as the region’s dominant programs since they moved from the 12th Region a decade ago.
“I think we fell apart mentally late last season. A lot of drama hurt us. I think they learned from that,” McElyea said. “It didn’t feel good when Middlesboro came up here and beat us in the district tournament. We want to get the district back.
“We were super young last year, but a lot of coaches use that as a copout. I think they know what can happen if they aren’t mentally ready.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134