Lady Bears ready to take next step


By John Henson, Bear Tracks adviser

All signs seem to indicate the Harlan County Lady Bears are close to taking the final step in reaching the top of the 13th Region.

After suffering through the worst season in school history in 2015, the Lady Bears bounced back nicely last year with a 23-9 record and a trip to the 13th Region Tournament finals. It was the fourth time in the eight-year history of the program that HCHS has finished as the region runner-up.

Even more promising is the fact that there were no seniors on a team dominated by sophomores and freshmen. Improving depth from three straight regional championship freshman teams should make the Lady Bears even more dangerous this season.

“I think we had to learn our system and jell together and then learn to trust and believe in each other,” said Harlan County coach Debbie Green, who enters her third season as coach. “I think we will continue to build on that this year. The kids have grown up and can do more things on their own now.”

The Lady Bears have no shortage of star power with 6-1 junior guard Blair Green and 6-0 junior center Kaylea Gross ranked among the region’s top three players.

“Kaylea and Blair play well off each other. They feed off each other a little bit. Kaylea has gone from being a sleeper to one of the top three players in the region,” Green said. “They are a hard match up for a lot of people.”

Green (19.6 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game last year), an all-state selection last year who enters her fifth season as a starter, committed to the University of Kentucky earlier in the fall, ending a lengthy recruiting battle that featured numerous Division I schools, including Tennessee, Louisville and UCLA.

“Blair can play anywhere, but we want to work her at the wing primarily,” said Green, who added that her daughter’s commitment to UK may have taken some pressure off her going into this season. “I think she’s ready to take over more and get to the basket and finish. We expect her numbers to go up this year. We expect a double-double out of her.”

Gross (14.4, 7.5) has also received some college attention as perhaps the region’s strongest player. Gross showed last year in a regional semifinal win over South Laurel that she can also be a shooting threat. Green is hoping to see more of that this season.

“Kaylea is learning to put it all together,” Green said. “She will probably play a 4 in college, so we want her to be able to step out. She runs the floor very well and is strong. We’re wanting her to work on moving without the ball and staying out of foul trouble.

Phebe McHargue (3.8), a sophomore point guard, may have been the most improved Lady Bear from the start of the season to the end, eventually becoming a contributor on the offensive end while serving one of the team’s top defenders.

“Phebe had a great summer. You could see she was a lot more experienced,” Green said. “She did a good job setting up the offense and knowing when to run. She’s stronger than she looks as an endurance runner.”

Junior Rebecca Middleton (6.8) and sophomore Reanna Middleton (3.0) shared the starting job at the two-guard last year. An injury sidelined the older Middleton at midseason.

“It’s a tossup for that spot. Rebecca is more experienced and kind of brings a steadiness to us. She is also one of our best shooters and gets a lot of the 50-50 balls with her hustle,” Green said. “Ree is very athletic. She can take you off the dribble or knock the 3 down, and she’s very strong and explosive.”

Breann Turner (4.5), a 5-8 sophomore, is back at forward, but 5-11 junior Lainey Cox (2.0) is also expected to see action there and at center.

“Bree is very smart and complements the other girls so well. She can knock down the mid-range jumper and rebound. She’s also a leader on the floor,” Green said. “Lainey really came on last year. She has a lot of length and is extremely quick. She is also a very smart player who can play three positions.”

K.K. Johnson (2.9), a speedy sophomore, who was also sidelined last year with an injury, can give HCHS instant offense off the bench. Hannah Gaw is the only senior on the roster and also provides depth at guard.

“Hannah accepts her role and is a high-character girl with great leadership skills. She can help us with her shooting,” Green said. “K.K. was really playing good until that shoulder injury. She is a great athlete who plays with no fear. She can shoot and isn’t afraid to take it to the basket.”

Another intriguing option in the backcourt is 5-9 sophomore Shelby McDaniel, who recently transferred from Hawaii. McDaniel hit all four of her shots from the field as she scored 12 points in Harlan County’s scrimmage victory over Williamsburg on Monday.

“Shelby is a phenomenal passer who sees the floor really well. She has long arms and does a great job of finishing in transition,” Green said. “She can read the defense and reminds me of Blair a little. She is built a lot like (former Bell County star) Maci (Morris) when she was younger.”

Junior forward Morgan Napier, who gave the Lady Bears a lift in several games last year with her perimeter shooting, could also help off the bench, along with junior guard Macie Napier.

Green is also impressed with another strong freshman class that features guards Brooklyn Wood and Morgan Blakley and forwards Emily Long and Dixie Ewing.

Harlan County may have the region’s deepest roster, which Green says improves the competition in practice. The Lady Bears knocked off four defending regional champions last season.

“If someone isn’t ready to play, there are people who can take their spot,” Green said. “Being this deep has really helped our practices.”

Green is hoping that depth, along with added experience, will help push the Lady Bears to the next level.

“Our defense and rebounding have to be better. We have to learn to trust our offense,” Green said. “We gained some experience and confidence last year. They know they can compete with any team in the region. We had some good wins against strong competition outside the region. We just have to keep working and getting better.”