From The Sidelines — Jones joins elite company in first season with Black Bears


Chandra Howard

Harlan County coach Kyle Jones talked with the Black Bears during a game earlier this season. The 27-5 Bears take on Corbin in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament on Thursday.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

From coaching at James A. Cawood Elementary School in 2022 to leading the sixth-ranked high school basketball team in Kentucky in 2023, Harlan County coach Kyle Jones has enjoyed one of the best first seasons in county basketball history.
“I’m blessed to have good players, and that’s all I can say,” Jones said. “They listen to us and do what we ask. They have fun, but at the same time they work hard. It’s been great so far, but have one more goal. We want to keep this going.”
The Black Bears improved to 27-5 on Friday with a 72-62 win over Harlan in the finals of the 52nd District Tournament. It was the Bears’ third win this season over Harlan, the 16th ranked team in the state, according to the RPI ratings. The Bears also have wins over the top-rated 12th Region team (Pulaski County) and the top-rated 16th Region team (Boyd County), along with three of the top four teams in the 14th Region (Breathitt County, Perry Central and Letcher Central) and the third-ranked team in the 7th Region (Male). The Bears are 13-0 against 13th Region teams.
‘I feel our schedule has really helped us. We’ve been tested all year,” Jones said. “I told them before we came out that we’ve driven all over the state of Kentucky and we shouldn’t be intimidated by playing in Middlesboro tonight.”
Going into Thursday’s game against Corbin in the 13th Region Tournament, Jones has led the Bears to 27 wins. According to the available records, only one coach in Harlan County history has won more games in his first season at a new school. Joe Gilley led Harlan to a state championship and a 34-6 record in 1944, his first season with the Dragons. Jones would have to win a state championship to tie Gilley, but is already ahead of some of the all-time great coaches. Jones’ father, Mike, led Harlan to a 21-9 record in 1992 before going on to win regional championships in three of the next four years.

Most wins in the first season of coaching at a new school:

1944 Joe Gilley – Harlan 34-6

2023 Kyle Jones – HCHS 27-5

1965 George Francis – Harlan 23-7

1981 Kirk Chiles – Cawood 22-8

1970 Ralph Roberts – Cumberland 22-7

1992 Mike Jones – Harlan 21-9

1979 Lonnie Morris.- Lynch 20-7

1991 Bill Scott – Cumberland 20-11

A matchup against defending champ North Laurel follows a trend for the Harlan Green Dragons in the 13th Region Tournament.
The Dragons have made seven straight trips to the regional after not qualifying for 16 straight years from 2001 to 2016. Harlan hasn’t won a game at the regional since knocking off Red Bird in 2000 and one big reason is their string of tough draws. Harlan lost to Corbin 2017 and 2021, Knox Central in 2018 and South Laurel in 2019, 2020 and 2022.
Harlan County also drew a tough opponent in the opening round, taking on Corbin on Thursday in the final game of the first round. The Bears have won three straight in the regional against the Hounds, knocking off Corbin in the 2017 finals and in the first round in 2020 on the way to a runner-up finish. The winner of the Corbin-HCHS game, however, will be a favorite in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon against the winner of the Clay County-Barbourville game.