After two straight seasons of sending a team to the Sweet Sixteen, it’s clear that the 52nd District has become the 13th Region’s best.
Bell County won its first 13th Region title in 2015 by knocking off Harlan in both the district and regional finals. The Lady Dragons followed Bell’s lead earlier this month by defeating crosstown rival Harlan County in the district and regional finals, earning their first trip to the state tournament since 1999.
The chance for a third straight all-52nd District final appear good with Harlan bringing back most of its key players and Harlan County returning its entire roster. The two should be at the top of most lists when the 2016-2017 season begins, and they are at the top of my list now as I take my annual look back at the best of the season that just ended and a look ahead to what you can expect next year.
For anyone keeping count, I had Harlan on top in last season’s Harlan Daily Enterprise preseason rankings with North Laurel and Harlan County not far behind. I’ve been debating whether I should pick Harlan or HCHS first in the 2017 rankings before going with the mental toughness of star guard Jordan Brock as the deciding factor, at least until Harlan County can mature enough to avoid the inconsistency that cost them in four losses to Harlan last year. While Harlan and HCHS are the favorites, South Laurel and North Laurel are very much in the race, and Clay County could be too if its young roster matures quickly. Whitley County, Knox Central and Corbin could also join the list of contenders, depending how much improvement is made over the summer and fall.
The following is my look back at the best of 2016 and what I expect to see in 2017:
G – Jordan Brock, Harlan
G – Brooklyn Massingill, Harlan
G – Kayla Bruner, North Laurel
G – Blair Green, Harlan County
C – Kaylea Gross, Harlan County
G – Kelli Roberts, Clay County
G – Jaclyn Jewell, Corbin
G – Katrina Johnson, Bell County
F – Shelby Davis, South Laurel
F – Emma Bianchi, Harlan
G – Madison Kehler, Oneida Baptist
G – Kaylee Mathis, Clay County
G – Madison Sheppard, North Laurel
F – Mackenzie King, Harlan
C – Zoe Taylor, Bell County
G – Hannah Lawson, North Laurel
G – Brooklyn Bryant, Lynn Camp
G – Jill Enix, Pineville
F – Cierra Crowe, Jackson County
C – Sydney Tye, WIlliamsburg
Jordan Brock, Harlan
Shelby Davis, South Laurel
Emma Bianchi, Harlan
Sydney Tye, Williamsburg
Brooklyn Bryant, Lynn Camp
Blair Green, Harlan County
Kaylea Gross, Harlan County
Mackenzie King, Harlan
Madison Sheppard, North Laurel
Hannah Lawson, North Laurel
Toni McCombs, Knox Central
Lexis Creech, Jackson County
Phebe McHargue, Harlan County
Breann Turner, Harlan County
Reanna Middleton, Harlan County
2016-2017 predictions (players listed by their 2017 grade):
1. Harlan — After two straight runner-up finishes, the Lady Dragons reached the top of the region earlier this month and like their chances of repeating despite losing guard Brooklyn Massingill and center Katie King to graduation. Any team that has Jordan Brock (19.6 points per game last year) in the lineup has a chance, and the senior point guard promised that the Lady Dragons would be back after they lost to Owensboro Catholic in the first round of the state tournament.
Harlan will also feature one of the region’s best frontlines with senior Emma Bianchi (8.4) and junior Mackenzie King (7.6) coming back. Taylor Simpson (2.6) and Brandi Haywood, last year’s top reserves, also return and could fill out the lineup. Standout freshman wing Natalee King is also in the mix, along with junior guard Noah Canady and sophomore guard Payeton Charles.
2. Harlan County — The Lady Bears went from a team with a losing record in 2015 to a regional runner-up in 2016 and will bring back everyone for 2017, led by junior guard Blair Green (19.6) and junior center Kaylea Gross (14.4). Sophomore forward Breann Turner (4.7) also returns, along with junior guard Rebecca Middleton (6.8) and sophomore guards Phebe McHargue (3.8), Reanna Middleton (3.0) and K.K. Johnson. (2.9). Senior center Kate Evans, senior forward Leah Evans, senior guard Hannah Gaw and junior forwards Lainey Cox and Morgan Napier will also compete for playing time on the region’s deepest roster.
3. South Laurel — A strong finish boosted the Lady Cards’ hopes for 2017, especially with everyone returning from the 50th District runner-up squad that threw a scare into Harlan County in the regional semifinals. Senior forward Shelby Davis (13.3) is among the region’s top players, and freshman guard Ally Collett (12.2) looks like a future star. Junior guards Taylor Cromer (8.1) and Becca Phelps (4.1) and 5-10 senior forward Katie Reynolds (6.3) also return. Dianna Morgan (6.1), a 5-11 sophomore center, provides depth, along with junior guards Emma Hibbits (3.6) and Drew Collett and freshman guard Amerah Steele (2.1).
4. North Laurel — With Kayla Bruner and Makayla Sexton graduating, North may have missed its best shot a regional title, but the Lady Jaguars will remain in the race with several key players coming back, led by junior point guard Hannah Lawson, junior wing Madison Sheppard and senior forward Ashton Bridges. Freshman guards Gracie Jervis and Isabell Gray will likely fill out the starting lineup after serving as key reserves in 2016.
5. Clay County — With a lineup dominated by underclassmen, the Lady Tigers won only 16 games after posting 25 victories the year, but Clay closed strong with a win over North Laurel in the 49th District finals. Losing guard Kelli Roberts could keep Clay from challenging the regional heavyweights for another year. Freshman guard Kaylee Mathis (15.1) returns, along with 5-9 sophomore forward Summer Parker (6.2), 5-7 sophomore guard Shelby Phillips (7.3) and sophomore guard Kimberlyn Mills (2.4), Eighth-grader Taylor Asher (3.-0) is expected to take over at point guard.
6. Whitley County — With a new coach and a lineup that lost three starters, the Lady Colonels struggled to find consistency in the 2016. Whitley should be better next season with junior forward Sierra Feltner (10.0), junior point guard Abbey Estes (12.4), sophomore guard Kaelie Frazier (12.8) and junior guard Hannah Clark (4.1) returning to the starting lineup. Key reserves Destiny Kinder (4.1) and Lyndi Kate Lawson (2.1) are also back.
7. Knox Central — The Lady Panthers are the favorite in the 51st District despite slumping from 14 wins to nine and losing Taylor Patterson and Cassie Hale to graduation. Returning starters include sophomore guard Toni McCombs, junior forward Madison Hicks, junior guard Abby Mills and sophomore forward Emily Davis.
8. Corbin — Two season after winning back-to-back 13th Region titles, the Lady Hounds continued to slide, falling from 18-12 to 16-13 and dropping out in the opening round of the 13th Region Tournament. Corbin will take another hard hit in graduation with four key players moving on, but senior guard Kameryn Ashurst (11.5) is one of the region’s best shooters and 5-11 senior forward Tori Baker (5.1) is back in the post, which means the Lady Hounds remain in the chase in the always competitive 50th District. Senior guard Sara Beth Price (2.0) and 5-11 junior forward Cora Stevens (3.3) are also likely to move into the lineup.
9. Bell County — One year after winning their first 13th Region title, the Lady Cats dropped to 17-10 and missed the regional tournament, due in large part to being in the same district as regional finalists Harlan and Harlan County. Another drop is likely with five players graduating, including four starters. Caleigh Collett (8.0) is back for her senior season, along with key reserves Alex Brock (4.5) and Bethany Miracle (3.1). No one else on the roster averaged over 1 point a game in varsity competition.
10. Pineville — After more than doubling their win total from a year ago, the Lady Lions hope to take the next step and challenge some of the region’s bigger schools. Three starters are back, including 5-9 junior guard Jill Enix (13.0), 5-6 senior forward Autumn Short (6.9) and junior point guard Sarah Combs (7.6). Senior guard Morgan Thompson (4.8) will round out the backcourt, with juniors Anna Howard (2.2) and Mackenzie Fuson (3.7) sharing time at forward.
Best of the rest:
11. Jackson County — The Lady Generals were one of the region’s most improved teams, going from eight wins to 15, and should continue to get better with four starters coming back, led by sophomores Lexie Creech (11.0) and Sara Mulligan (8.7), junior guard Haley Adkins (8.6) and senior forward Patricia Ford (4.3).
12. Lynn Camp — Losing Breanna White in the middle will hurt, but the Lady Cats will remain strong in the backcourt with point guard Brooklyn Bryant (14.8) returning for her senior season alongside sophomore Bradi Coe (8.9) and senior Keisha Brock (7.9). Mackenzie Grant (6.9), a 5-9 sophomore, is back at forward.
13. Williamsburg — Losers of several close games, the Lady Jackets took a slight step back last season with a 6-20 mark but have high hopes for 2017 with everyone returning. Williamsburg will be among the region’s biggest teams with 6-2 senior Sydney Tye (9.8), 5-11 junior Madison Centers (4.6) and 6-0 junior Kelsey Tye (4.4) returning. Junior guard Kayla Gibson (10.8) also returns, along with freshmen Lillie Hall (8.7) and Madison Chapman (4.2) and sophomore Lillie Abbott (6.0)
14. Barbourville — After going from two wins to 12, the Lady Tigers hope to take the next step with several key players returning, led by 5-11 junior forward Anna Daniels (16.7). Senior guard Jordyn Smith (4.7) also returns, along with freshman guard Abbagail Smith (6.7), 5-9 junior center Shelbie Jones (4.2) and junior guards Whitney Brown (7.6) and Kaylee Smith (4.0).
15. Middlesboro — After taking a big step up last year, going from four wins to 13 wins, the Lady Jackets may drop back in 2017 with three starters graduating. Senior guard Bailey Brunsma (6.4) and junior center Malorie Carter (2.0) return, along with junior guard Hannah Warren (9.0). If junior guard Jamayha Poe can make it back from a knee injury that sidelined her all of last season, the Lady Jackets could be as dangerous as last year and move up to the top 10.
16. Oneida Baptist — The Lady Mountaineers were a disappointment in 2016, dropping from 16 wins to 10 despite bringing back four starters. Senior guard Mardorie Flahn (8.1) and sophomore guard Eileen Phocas (5.2) are the only players coming back next season who averaged at least a point a game.
17. Red Bird — A pair of juniors, 6-0 center Bethany Austin and 5-7 guard Kara Wilson, should help the Lady Cards improve. Senior guard Kassidy Collett and sophomore forward Makenna Caldwell also return.