Bears set sights on regional title


By John Henson, Bear Tracks adviser

A team coming off a 24-win season and two straight 52nd District Tournament titles, the Harlan County Black Bears have painted themselves into something of a corner. With all five starters coming back, including two with four years of starting experience, the Bears are left with only major unreached goal — winning the 13th Region Tournament title.

“It’s the only one that matters to us right now, and we talk about it,” said third-year coach Michael Jones, who was the starting point guard on Harlan’s regional championship team in 1993, the squad that broke a 24-year drought between Sweet 16 trips for Harlan County teams. “We talk about going to Rupp Arena once or twice a week. I want these kids to believe.”

Getting there won’t be easy in a region with at least five teams that could considered worthy to be ranked in the state’s top 25. The Black Bears edged South Laurel, Corbin, North Laurel and Knox Central in the Cats Pause preseason poll as the region’s top team.

“We feel we have the best team. That’s not negative toward any other team, it’s just believing in what we have here,” Jones said. “You have Corbin with everybody back, North with just about everyone back, South with three starters back and good role players, and you have Knox Central with some really talented players. We know all those teams are capable of winning, and we feel we’re in that group.”

Harlan County was remarkably consistent last season, winning its share of blowout games while almost always executing at the end to win the close games.

The one obvious exception was at the end when the Bears couldn’t hit a shot, including free throws, in a 54-43 loss to Clay County in the 13th Region Tournament semifinals. The Bears led almost all of the first half and stayed close for three quarters before wilting late under the big-game pressure, missing 10 of 19 free throws.

“There’s a whole lot we can learn from that, and what we’ve been stressing as coaches is how valuable each possession is,” Jones said. “We’ve talked about how important the small things are. We’ve told them we could have still won the game, as bad as we shot, if we had just hit our free throws. If we take care of the small things, the wins will come with it.

“They are reminded of last year every day in practice, the little things that could have gotten us over the hump. We’re not taking for granted that just because we had a good year last year we’ll have a good one this year. We know we have to continue working hard.”

Jones hopes another year of experience will give the Bears confidence to take the new step. There is no shortage of experience with 5-10 point guard Cameron Carmical and 6-6 wing Treyce Spurlock each returning for their fourth seasons as starters.

“In order for us to reach our goals, we have to find offense from other people besides just Cameron and Treyce. We played a tough schedule last year and will play a tough schedule this year. We just hope it gets us ready. Anybody who saw us practice could see how much we’ve grown up since last year,” said Jones.

Carmical is the region’s top point guard, averaging 17.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game while provide steady ball-handling and leadership.

“He’s a special player and a leader on the floor,” Jones said. “He has full rein of the offense, and I know he will always put us in the right position. He can do it all — great passer, ball handler and shooter. He’s a tremendous point guard.”

Spurlock (15.2, 6.5) is still one of the region’s top shooters but became more of all-around player last season with rebounding and defense.

“Treyce is also a special player. His length makes him so tough,” Jones said. “Treyce saw a lot of box and chasers last year. We’ve worked on ways to handle that. He has improved his shooting. He is always in the gym working. He’s gotten stronger in the weight room.”

Drew Nolan (8.2, 3.8), a junior guard, had several big games last year, both as a scorer and rebounder, but Jones would like to see more consistency.

“He is a key for us offensively. We have to put him, as coaches, in better scoring situations,” Jones said. “Right now he’s shooting the ball extremely well. He really put the time in this summer, and you can see the results. He worked really hard in the weight room. He’s so much bigger and stronger. He and (Tyrese) Simmons have the capability to average 10 rebounds a game.”

Tyrese Simmons (9.6, 4.6), a junior forward, is one of the region’s most athletic players and can contribute on the boards and on defense, in addition to his offensive abilities.

“He’s obviously the most athletic kid we have on the team. He came in from football and didn’t miss a beat,” Jones said. “He’s shooting the ball well, and we’ve put some things in for him. We need him to be a scorer for us to reach our goal.”

David Turner (6.8, 4.3), a 6-2 senior center who held his own against bigger opponents last year, is important to the Bears’ success, as is junior guard Andrew Creech (2.8), who returns as the sixth man.

“David does all the dirty work. He’s the glue that holds our team together,” Jones said. “David is shooting the ball as well as anyone right now. He never complains and just works hard and does his job. We wouldn’t have been as successful lass year without David.”

“Andrew has probably improved as much as anyone offensively. He is playing with a lot of confidence now and stepping up and knocking down shots. He always bring energy to practice, and he will defend you. We need him to be aggressive offensively, and he’s doing that right now.”

Junior guard Paul Stapleton is working his way back from a knee injury and should provide some quality depth after a year away from the team. Jared Sizemore, a senior guard who sat out last year to concentrate on baseball, can provide instant offense when he’s in the game.

“We’re extremely happy to have Jared back. He will allow us to space the floor, especially against zones. He can shoot it well,” Jones said. “We’re also very happy to have Paul back. You can tell he’s getting stronger every day in practice. He can get to the hole and hit shots and defend.”

Sophomore guards Alex Pace and Gabe Price played a bigger role for the Bears in the summer and should help off the bench, along with sophomore guard Patrick Bynum.

“Pace does everything so well. He will be extremely important for us. He has a knack for hitting shots and sees things well on defense,” Jones said. “Gabe can give us some minutes at point guard. He’s an extremely aggressive kid and can knock down shots.”

Jones says the Bears have spent a lot of time preparing for all the possibilities they could see this season.

“We’ve worked on a lot of situations in practice,” Jones said. “We’ve put kids in every situation possible, from .3 on the clock to whatever. We hope we’ve prepared them enough that whatever happens in a game they will be ready to respond. We’re more mature with everyone back, and they’ve worked extremely hard in the weight room. We feel being a year older will be a big strength for us.”

Jones knows his Bears won’t have luxury of being overlooked like last year, when many didn’t think they could compete against the region’s top teams.

“We don’t look at it as a pressure,” he said. “We’d rather be No. 1 than 9, 10 or 11. We’re embracing it.”