From The Sidelines: Game of the Century – Part 1

Harlan, HC ranked among state’s top 25 heading into showdown Thursday


Chris Jones

Harlan senior forward Jaedyn Gist defended Harlan County point guard Maddox Huff in a game last season. Both teams are ranked in the state’s top 20 heading into a showdown Thursday at Harlan.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Speaking in absolutes is dangerous territory for any journalist and something I’ve warned reporters against for decades. Saying something is the best or biggest or has never happened before just invites someone to prove you wrong. I’ve received the call or letter, once from a reader in Hawaii, to point out something I thought had never happened before had indeed happened in 1967.
But, as you can probably tell from the gray hair, I’m not that young reporter/editor anymore. After over 40 years of covering high school basketball, at least if you count the time I was writing for the Sword & Shield at Cawood High School before parts of five decades at the Harlan Daily Enterprise, I’ve turned into something of a sports historian by default. But even with all that experience, I’ve spent the entire 2022-2023 season fighting the idea that boys high school basketball in Harlan County has never been better from top to bottom than it is today.
As the Harlan Green Dragons and Harlan County Black Bears prepare for the first of two meetings in five days on Thursday night at Harlan High School, it’s time to proclaim that’s exactly where we find ourselves going into the first meeting between the two this season.
One fact that makes it easier to say is that there are no longer 12 high school basketball teams like there were in our county in 1960 and 1961. There are no longer five teams like there were from 1967 to 1981, or even the four that competed after Lynch closed in 1981 and before Harlan County High School opened in 2008.
There are only two teams left in Harlan County and they are both good. In fact, they are both really good.
Harlan, at 20-3, and HCHS, at 18-4, are ranked 1-2 in the 13th Region in the RPI ratings used by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association and both are ranked in the top 20 in the entire state with Harlan coming in 10th and HCHS 19th. The Cantrall Ratings in the Lexington Herald-Leader have Harlan ranked 20th in the state and Harlan County 22nd. Perhaps someone out there reading this can remember a time when we’ve had two teams ranked in the top 25 in the state at the same time and ranked first and second in the 13th Region, but I can’t. There have been plenty of great teams in Harlan County and some probably better than either the Dragons or Bears (even though both will have a chance to prove they belong among the all-time greats in March), but I can’t recall a time when we’ve had two this good.
Both teams have experienced squads, especially Harlan with a three-senior lineup featuring forwards Jaedyn Gist and Will Austin and guard Kaleb McLendon. Junior guard Kyler McLendon has developed into one of the region’s top players. Eighth-grader Trenton Cole has provided a 3-point threat in his first season as a starter. Nate Montanaro, Dylan Cox and Matthew Pennington have provided improved depth.
Harlan County has only senior starter in 3-point specialist Daniel Carmical, but have a four-year starter and all-stater in junior Trent Noah and a two-year starter at point guard in sophomore Maddox Huff, who came into the season ranked among the region’s top 10 players, along with Noah and Gist. Junior guard Jonah Swanner is a three-sport standout. Sophomore center Jaycee Carter rounds out the starting lineup with junior Caleb Johnson serving as the sixth man. Sophomore guards Brody Napier and Ethan Simpson have also seen action, along with freshmen Reggie Cottrell and Hunter Napier.