Bailey’s Bears hope to pick up where they left off last spring with veteran squad returning


Team members include, from left, front row: Carson Clark, Aiden Lewis, Colston Boggs, Joseph Hoskins, Kayden Hensley, Tyler Lunsford and Chance Sturgill; middle row: Deshaun Smith, Isaac Kelly, Aiden Craig, Brennan Blevins, Samuel Henson, Tucker Hatmaker, Josh Duckworth and Jace Capps; back row: Rydge Lewis, Alex Creech, Kaden Boggs, Braydon Burton, Brayden Blakley, Tristan Cooper, Karsten Dixon, Will Cassim, Gunnar Johnson, Gunner Burkhart and coach Scotty Bailey.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

In losing 14 of their first 15 games a year ago, the Harlan County Black Bears struggled through the growing pains that first-year coach Scotty Bailey knew were waiting when he took over as head coach.
Harlan County’s young squad, featuring only one senior starter, slowly grew up and responded with nine wins in the next 13 games. The Black Bears knocked Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament and earned a trip to the 13th Region Tournament before falling to Clay County in the opening round.
Bailey hopes the learning curve in year two won’t have as many ups and downs with eight starters returning in a junior-dominated lineup.
“We went through the tough part of the schedule early and were in a lot of close games. We had to learn how to win and finish a game. We haven’t won that much lately, so they are still learning and growing up,” Bailey said. “I told them once they learned how to play for each other, they would win some of the games they are letting slip away. We have more experience now with a lot of kids who are still learning the game.
“Leadership is important for us. We have three seniors this year with (Brayden) Blakley, (Braydon) Burton and (Karsten) Dixon who have been through the struggles. They have that drive to them, and they want to win. I think we’ll progress as the season goes on.”
A big reason for Bailey’s optimism is a pitching rotation led by 6-3 junior Tristan Cooper, who posted a 5-3 record last season with a 2.86 earned run average and 87 strikeouts in 56 innings. Cooper struck out 18 in a win over Harlan and had several dominating performances.
“I think Tristan will show people he’s one of the best in the region. He worked hard in the offseason and got his arm stronger,” Bailey said. “He watches game film all the time and wants to perfect his craft. I’m real excited to see him pitch this year. I think he’s doing a better job with breaking pitches this year. He’s developed a slider and worked on his changeup with coach (Roger) Morris.”
Brayden Blakley, a senior who has been a member of the Bears’ rotation since the eighth grade, had a 3-2 record with a 2.95 earned run average despite working his way back from shoulder surgery that limited both his innings and his power.
“I think the time off helped him. He had some good pop on his ball the other day, which we hadn’t seen much since his surgery,” Bailey said. “I think he could close some for us this year, throwing a couple of innings when we need it.”
Karsten Dixon, also a senior, struck out 39 and walked only 11 in 27 innings last year and is expected to play a bigger role this season.
“He got sick midway through last season and he lost some weight. He pitched real well over at Hazard before he got sick,” Bailey said. “He hit the weights and threw bullpen in the offseason and strengthened his arm. He is throwing better than last year, and I think he can have a real good year.”
Alex Creech, a sophomore, rounds out the starting rotation after pitching eight innings of varsity action last year. Will Cassim, Samuel Henson, Tyler Lunsford and Tucker Ball will also see action on the mound.
“Creech is throwing a lot hard this spring. I think he can help us,” Bailey said. “Our goal as a pitching staff to stay away from walks.”
Handling the pitching staff will be junior Isaac Kelley, a four-year starter behind the plate who hit .313 with 30 hits and 14 RBI.
“He got off to a slow start last year, but he got hot and he helped us win a lot of games. He has a lot of experience and is hitting the ball well now,” Bailey said. “He has some power and hits the ball hard, He lost some weight and is moving a lot better behind the plate and setting up on the outside corner of the plate. He also has more speed than you would think. They talk about how fast his brother (Luke) is, but I think Isaac could keep up with him.”
Will Cassim, a 6-3, 290-pound football standout, gives the Bears an imposing hitter in the middle of the lineup as he returns at first base after hitting .264 last year with a team-high two home runs and 17 RBI.
“Will is swinging the bat real well and has a good attitude. He looks good at the plate and he’s also moving around well at first,” Bailey said. “I think he will also help us on the mound.”
Creech is back at second base but will likely move up in the lineup after hitting ninth a year ago with a .246 average and 17 hits.
“Alex has gotten stronger and had a good offseason. He really pushed himself,” Bailey said. “He’s hitting his spots real well on the mound and had three hits in a scrimmage over at Lee. He was very clutch for us last year. He’s smooth at the plate, on the field and on the mound. He’s grown up a lot and has a lot of potential.”
Blakley is back at shortstop when he isn’t pitching and will be counted on to provide plenty of offense after hitting .306 a year ago with 22 hits.
“It feels like Brayden has been here for 10 years. His arm was an issue last year, but he feels good now,” Bailey said. “I’m looking for him to have a good season, both on the mound and at shortstop. He has been making all the plays, and he’s a good leader.”
Henson, a junior, is back at third base after a strong postseason performance a year ago that included two hits against Harlan in the district tournament and a triple against Middlesboro in the district finals.
“He got moved around a lot last year, but he was making some great plays at third and producing at the plate late in the year. He brings a lot of energy and does a good job with his bunts,” Bailey said. “He has worked hard on his hitting.”
Cooper will see action at shortstop or in the outfield when he isn’t pitching. Aiden Craig will play second base if Creech is pitching or playing shortstop.
“Tristan has some pop in his bat and he really took the offseason seriously and went to work. He gained 10 or 15 pounds,” Bailey said. “
Jonah Swanner, a junior center fielder who is a three-sport star for the Bears, ignited the HCHS offense a year ago with a team-high 390 average as well as 30 stolen bases and six triples.
“He’s one of those guys who can make something happen,” Bailey said. “I saw him catch a ball in left field last year while he was playing center. He can play anywhere, but he’s so quick and can see the ball off the bat so well it’s hard to take him out of center. I think he can be one of the top players in the region. He hit around .400 last year and had some big hits in the tournament. He’s one of those guys we feed off of. The atmosphere was different in practice when he got back from basketball. I just enjoy watching him.”
Braydon Burton, a senior, is back in right field after hitting .254 last season with 17 hits.
“He got so good with his jumps last year. He’s taken a big jump, and I’m real proud of him,” Bailey said. “He was hitting real well last year before he got hurt over in Hazard. He’s a very good drag bunter. I also think he will give us some senior leadership.”
There are several candidates in left field, including junior Tyler Lunsford, sophomore Kaden Boggs and eighth-grader Gunnar Johnson.
“Tyler had a good outing in the scrimmage with a couple of hits. He can also help us on the mound,” Bailey said. “Kaden looked like he had played out there his entire life when he was out there against Lee. Gunnar has made some diving catches in practice and had a hit in the scrimmage. He has a lot of potential and could end up starting somewhere by the middle of the season.”
Harlan County hasn’t won a district title since Bailey was a senior in 2014, the third in four years during a time when the Bears were much more of a factor in the 13th Region race. He hopes they can end that drought this spring after six-time defending champ Middlesboro lost seven starters to graduation.
“We talk about that every day. It hasn’t happened in a long time. Our minds are set on winning the district as the first step,” Bailey said. “I think we have the kids to do that.”

Harlan County senior shortstop Brayden Blakley, pictured in action last season, is one of the leaders for this year’s team. (Kim Henson)
Harlan County junior pitcher Tristan Cooper posted a 5-3 record last season with a 2.86 earned run average and 87 strikeouts in 56 innings. (Chris Jones)
Harlan County first baseman WIll Cassim, pictured in action last season, is expected to play a key role in the HC offense. (Ernie Sexton)