Lady Bears expect to bounce back after struggling through a rebuilding 2022 campaign


Kim Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Kendall Brock, Taylor Clem, Lola Maggard, Bethany Robbins, Madison Blair, Aviya Halcomb, Akira Lee, Rylie Maggard and Braylen Gilley; back row: Allie Kelly, Halanah Shepherd, Jenna Wilson, Hailey Austin, Halle Raleigh, Josalyn Lee, Hannah Raleigh, Lesleigh Brown, Jade Burton and Brittleigh Estep; not pictured: Lindsey Skidmore, D’anna Cook, Aly Sherman and Alexis Adams.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

After recording a pair of dubious firsts in 2022, including their first losing season and their first loss in the opening round of the 52nd District Tournament, the Harlan County Lady Bears are determined not to repeat either in 2023. With all their key players back, both a year older and wiser, second-year coach Shelby Burton likes the progress her team has made.
“I think our lack of experience caught up with us in the district tournament. We only had two who had been in that situation before,” Burton said. “I think they know what to expect now. I pushed them so much but I want to get every ounce out of them. I thought hitting hurt us in a lot of close games last year. I hope they saw what it takes and to never settle. We think we taught them the game last year, and we hope they are ready to take it up notch and play ball this year.”
Sophomore Madison Blair was one of the Lady Bears’ most consistent players a year ago, ranking third in hits with 35 while posting a .343 average. She also pitched in 26 games with an 8-15 record while striking out 82 and walking 48.
“Last year was a learning experience for Maddy,” Burton said. “She put in a lot of hard work in the off-season. I want the ball in her hands. She has worked on her speed and pitches. People will see a big difference. She brings so much hard work and love of the game to this team.”
While the Lady Bears had their share of struggles on offense a year, one major bright spot was the play of Halanah Shepherd, who hit a team-high .409 last year with 36 hits and 14 RBI while also playing a stellar first base.
“Our girls have so much confidence in her taking the throws at first base,” Burton said. “She led us in a lot of categories and it’s amazing to think she was only 13 years old last season. We expect a lot out of Halanah in the next four years. She is so skilled and so smart. Her IQ level for the game is impressive.”
Jenna Wilson, a junior, enjoyed a breakout season at second base last year by hitting .409, stealing 14 bases and recording 42 hits, all team-highs, while adding 21 RBI.
“Jenna is very athletic and worked very hard in the off-season. She has gained so much strength,” Burton said. “She has very good reactions. She doesn’t overthink things.”
Brittleigh Estep, also a junior, returns at shortstop after hitting .374 last season with 34 hits and a team-high 33 RBI.
“She moves well and can cover a lot of ground and has a great arm,” Burton said. “She is one of our better hitters.”
The Lady Bears played much better last season after moving Hailey Austin, a senior, to third base, where she played excellent defense while recording 15 hits and scoring 20 runs.
“Hailey is an outstanding leader and does a great job at protecting that third-base line. I thought she really got comfortable after we moved her to third last year,” Burton said. “She is strong and has improved her hitting. I expect her to have her best season on the diamond.”
Jade Burton, a sophomore, is back behind the plate after hitting .301 last season while recording 28 hits.
“I feel we threw her in there last year and she didn’t have the experience at that position a lot of other teams had,” Burton said. “Jade has worked exceptionally hard. She knows how to control the game and is one of our best fielders and has a good bat.”
Rylie Maggard, a junior, was one of the region’s best defenders in center field and hit .353 while recording 30 hits and 17 RBI.
“I don’t know if they come any tougher,” Burton said. “She had so many highlight-reel catches last year, and I don’t how she does it sometimes. She is so athletic and I expect more out of her offensively. She runs the bases as well as anyone we have.”
Halle Raleigh, a senior, is back in right field, while junior Lesleigh Brown plays left. Raleigh hit .333 with 23 runs and 22 hits. Brown had 13 hits and eight RBI.
“Halle sees the ball well off the bat and has a great attitude. She is very uplifting to the girls and is one you want on your team. She builds a strong family with all the girls,” Burton said. “Lesleigh does everything she’s asked to do. She is one of our hardest working kids. She brings so much to this team because she can handle the bat. She had a couple of hits in
Josalyn Lee, a senior who is back with the team after a year in Louisville, provides a speed threat the Lady Bears lacked a year ago. She will see action as an outfielder and a courtesy runner.
“She is our hidden gem. The speed she brings is just what we need. We seriously lacked that last year. I expect her to score every time she gets on base,” Burton said. “I expect her to score as many runs as anyone we’ve had here. She also could help us in the outfield and as a hitter.”
Aviya Halcomb, a sophomore, will see action at several positions.
“She has grown up a lot this year and will play a key role,” Burton said.
Burton is confident the Lady Bears will be able to score more runs this season and come up with clutch hits.
“I think people will be surprised how much better we’ve gotten on offense. We left so many girls on base last year because we couldn’t come up with big hits,” Burton said. “I thought we were close to getting over the top at times last year, but they have grown up now. We had to break down every position last year, but now we aren’t having to learn the game. They are just playing.”

Madison Blair returns for her sophomore season as Harlan County’s top pitcher. (John Henson)
Harlan County seniors this season include Hailey Austin, Halle Raleigh and Josalyn Lee. (Kim Henson)