Jones inherits talented squad with sights set on deep postseason run


John Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Reggie Cottrell, Brody Napier, Jonah Swanner, Daniel Carmical, Ethan Simpson, Taelor Haywood and Hunter Napier; back row: Cayden Hensley, Brennan Blevins, Ethan Shular, Aaron Johnson, Maddox Huff, Trent Noah, Jaycee Carter, Caleb Johnson, Aidan Reynolds, Evan Simpson, Brayden Hensley and Gage Peck.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Unlike many first-year coaches who step into a rebuilding situation, Harlan County’s Kyle Jones finds himself in a win-now scenario with four starters back from a 19-11 team that suffered a disappointing first-round district tournament exit with an overtime loss at Bell County.
Even with star guard Trent Noah not with the team for much of the summer, the Bears posted a 16-6 mark and find themselves ranked anywhere from second to fourth in the 13th Region.
“This summer was an adjustment for both me and the players. We have a great group of kids and a good coaching staff. Practice has been going well,” said Jones, who succeeds his brother, Michael, as the HCHS coach.
With Noah and Maddox Huff firmly entrenched as two of the region’s top scorers, Jones has turned his focus to defense and toughness in the preseason.
“I think that’s the key for us taking the next step,” Jones said. “Defensive intensity and toughness will be crucial for this group. I feel we will be able to score, but there will be off nights, so we have to be able to do something else.”
Noah (28.1, 9.9), a 6-7 junior, became only the second player in HCHS history to make the all-state team last year and is currently ranked as the 10th best high school player in Kentucky by the Louisville Courier-Journal and second in the Class of 2024. College coaches from all over the nation found their way to HCHS this fall to try to convince him to attend their school.
“”He will be the all-time leading scorer at Harlan County High School at some point this year, which says a lot when you consider how many great players we’ve already had here,” Jones said. “He works so hard. He’s in the gym all the time, and he’s dropped some weight and can do more things. These college coaches are impressed with his work ethic. Everyone knows what a great shooter he is. I think he will make a run at Mr. Basketball in 2024.”
Huff (11.9, 5.1), a 6-3 sophomore, is back for his second season as the Bears’ point guard. He put himself in the conversation as one of the state’s best in the Class of 2025 with a monster summer performance.
“He’s going to take on a bigger leadership role this year. I just feel the work he put in all summer and the strides he made, he will be extremely tough for anyone in the region to guard,” Jones said. “I think he’s improved his defense. That’s something we’ve worked on as a team.”
Senior guard Daniel Carmical (10.3) provides one of the region’s most dangerous perimeter threats. Jones would like to see more consistency this season.
“Daniel benefits from playing with Trent and Maddox, but they benefit from playing with him because he spaces the floor,” Jones said. “I think he’s the best 3-point shooter in the region. I want him to shoot every time he has a look. He can miss four or five in a row, then make seven or eight. He gives a great effort in practice and has become a better leader.”
Jonah Swanner (11.8, 4.0), a 5-10 junior, is the Bears’ defensive ace and is deadly in the open court as one of the region’s best all-around athletes.
“He jumps straight out of any sport and doesn’t miss.a beat. He’s one of the best three-sport athletes in the mountains,” Jones said. “He’s a tremendous defender with great hands and is a tough cover with his ability to finish around the basket. I’m excited to be able to coach him.”
Jaycee Carter, a 6-4 sophomore, is the early favorite to take over at center. He alternated with 6-3 junior Caleb Johnson in the Bears’ 100-84 scrimmage win over Dobyns Bennett, the defending Tennessee state champis.
“Jaycee is another kid who has worked on changing his body. He’s a big, physical kid who knows his role and is fine with it. He’s an underrated rebounder. We expect him to play a big role for us this year,” Jones said. “Johnson has worked hard and is really athletic. A lot depends on the matchup as to how much he and Jaycee play. Caleb has a high motor and will be a big contributor this year. He just needs some game experience and confidence.”
Brody Napier, a sophomore point guard, was a leader on last year’s junior varsity squad and played a big role in the summer.
“He can play several positions and is a heady, smart player,” Jones said. “He’s a good shooter and can help us handle the ball.”
Jeremiah Clem, a 6-0 senior, has missed all the summer and fall workouts due to a severe ankle injury.
“He’s a hard-nosed kid and steady ball-handler. He brings a toughness to our team,” Jones said.
Standout freshman Hunter Napier has been sidelined by a foot injury but should play a big role when he gets back around the first of the year.
“He’s a real physical kid who has a high motor and plays with a lot of energy,” Jones said. “I think he will be a big part of our program over the next four years.”
Sophomore guard Ethan Simpson and freshman guard Reggie Cottrell could also see action, along with junior wing Taelor Haywood.
While Harlan County is at the top in most rankings, Jones knows the 52nd District will be tough as always, especially with a senior-dominated Harlan squad shooting for its second district title in three years.
“Harlan has four starters back, like we do, and those kids won’t be intimidated to play us,” he said. “Bell still has Woolum and will get better as the year goes on. Middlesboro has some kids back and should be competitive.”
The Black Bears have been to the regional finals three times in the past decade and are focused on another run at the title this year, even with a powerful North Laurel squad as the clear-cut favorite.
“We’ve focused on defense and being more physical on the boards. I want to see us play with more emotion. That’s something we’ve been working on,” Jones said. “This team has the potential to be very good. We just have to stay hungry and keep working to get better.”

Nov 29, 22 Perry County Central home 7:30 PM
Dec 3, 22 Mercer County at South Laurel 2:15 PM 12th vs. 13th Region Challenge
Dec 7, 22 Knott County Central at Knott Co. Central 6:00 PM WYMT Mountain Classic
Dec 13, 22 Bell County home 7:30 PM
Dec 16, 22 TBA at Fairdale King of the Bluegrass
Dec 28, 22 TBA at Gatlinburg, Tenn. Smoky Mountain Winter Classic
Jan 5, 23 South Laurel home 7:30 PM
Jan 7, 23 St. Henry at South Laurel Raymond Reed Classic
Jan 9, 23 Clay County away 7:30 PM
Jan 13, 23 Middlesboro away 7:30 PM
Jan 14, 23 Knox Central home 7:30 PM
Jan 17, 23 Bell County away 7:30 PM
Jan 19, 23 Letcher County Central away 7:30 PM
Jan 21, 23 Cordia away 7:30 PM
Jan 24, 23 Breathitt County home 7:30 PM
Jan 27, 23 Harlan away 7:30 PM
Jan 28, 23 TBA at Rockcastle County Rocket Classic
Jan 31, 23 Pineville away 7:30 PM
Feb 3, 23 Pulaski County home 7:30 PM
Feb 7, 23 Harlan home 7:30 PM
Feb 10, 23 Middlesboro home 7:30 PM
Feb 11, 23 Barbourville away 7:30 PM
Feb 14, 23 Whitley County home 7:30 PM