Nolan looking for leaders in first season back with Lady Bears


John Henson

Harlan County Lady Bears Team members include, from left, front row: Kylie Jones, Abby Vitatoe, Jacey Lewis, Kassy Owens, Kelly Beth Hoskins, Haley Middleton and Ella Karst; back row: Taytum Griffin, Hailey Austin, Jaylin Smith, Kylie Noe, Taylor Lunsford, Paige Phillips, Jenna Wilson and Jaylin Preston.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Back after six years away from coaching, Anthony Nolan began his second stint as leader of the Harlan County girls basketball program soon after the coronavirus pandemic pounded the planet and took away the traditional summer scrimmage period.
Nolan, who compiled a 132-48 record in six seasons in his previous stint, has spent much of his time with the Lady Bears trying to get to know his team and teach them his system.
“With all the unknown factors going back to June, the kids have bought in and worked hard and are learning. They are adapting much quicker than I anticipated in June,” he said. “They have had a great attitude and tremendous work ethic. They are a fun group to coach.”
Since posting a 28-3 mark and winning the school’s first regional title in 2018, the Lady Bears have steadily declined as you might expect for a program that has been hit hard by graduation for three straight seasons.
HCHS fell to 16-12 last season and lost a heartbreaker to Bell County in the 52nd District finals to end a streak of three straight championships. The Lady Bears fell to South Laurel in the first round of last year’s 13th Region Tournament, ending a streak of nine straight first-round regional tournament wins.
The Lady Bears lost two starters from that team in Morgan Blakley and Hannah Wood, as well as key reserve Dixie Ewing.
“We lack leadership at this point. The potential is there, but they lack the confidence. I think we will find that person eventually,” Nolan said. “I think we have good balance though, which will make it harder for people to play junk defenses. We are capable of scoring at each position, but we have to do a better job of making the right reads on defense and attacking.”
Most of the Lady Bears’ experience is on the inside where 5-9 senior Kassy Owens (6.2 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game) and 5-7 junior Jaylin Smith are returning starters.
“I think we can go to Jaylin If we need someone to create a basket. She has the ability to get to the free throw line, but she has to convert those at a higher percentage. She has a knack for the ball,” Nolan said. “Kassy is one of the better athletes in the building. She runs the floor like a guard and jumps very well. She also has a decent shot. She just needs more confidence in commanding the ball. If we are going to advance, she has to be the key. She has a lot of upside with a great attitude. She can play any spot on defense.”
Ella Karst (12.4 pig, 3.6 rpg), a 5-3 freshman, will likely take over at point guard. Karst was a former middle school standout at James A. Cawood who started on the Harlan varsity squad the past two seasons.
“I think Ella has the potential to be one of the best point guards I’ve coached since we consolidated,” Nolan said. “She is years above being a freshman, and I can see her confidence grow daily. We need her to be more of a vocal leader, and I think that will come as she gets used to her teammates. She has been very consistent handling the ball and she is improving as a scorer. She has a quicker first step than I thought she did. She always has her head up running the floor and is a great passer.”
Kelly Beth Hoskins (8.5, 3.7) and Jacey Lewis (3.9, 1.9), both seniors, are the probable starters on the wings. Hoskins was a starter last year and Lewis played extensively off the bench after returning to the team late last season.
“Jacey has good length and if she concentrates a little more on her defense and stamina she could be a strong asset for us. She has a nice set shot but needs to work on the physical part of the game and taking people off the dribble,” Nolan said. “Kelly Beth is more versatile than I realized. She can help us at forward also. She has a nice 3-point shot and has a high basketball IQ. She picks up on things quickly.”
Jaylin Preston (3.2, 1.5), a junior guard, played well off the bench in last year’s postseason and will again play a key role this season.
“She gives us a big boost on defense. She has a lot of speed and gives us a lot of depth,” Nolan said. “She needs to slow down a little on offense though.”
Taylor Lunsford, a 5-11 sophomore, will give the Lady Bears added size when she’s in the game.
“She has looked a lot better. She is strong and physical inside, especially on the offensive boards,” Nolan said. “She has to learn to move her feet laterally though. That is holding her back.”
Kylie Noe and Kylie Jones, both eighth-grade standouts, are also pushing for playing time. Noe missed much of last season with a knee injury.
“She is getting back from the injury and is still sore after practice, but she a lot of potential and could help us. She has some things to learn on defense, but she is very strong attacking the basket,” Nolan said. “Kylie Jones is improving tremendously. She really could help us handling the ball.”
Paige Phillips, a 5-8 freshman, has impressed the coaching staff with her athleticism and could see some varsity minutes, along with sophomore guards Hailey Austin, Taytum Griffin and Jenna Wilson and seniors Haley Middleton and Abby Vitatoe.
Like most coaches, Nolan rates South Laurel and North Laurel as the 13th Region favorites once again but likes his team’s chances of making another postseason run.
“If we can get on any type of regular schedule this winter, I can see us being extremely competitive with everyone in the region,” Nolan said. “We need to be able to play consistently to reach our potential because we lack experience
“The biggest thing is understanding their roles and playing within themselves. We need to utilize those strengths and become a cohesive unit. I think we can be pretty competitive if we learn to do that.”


Senior forward Kassy Owens is a returning starter this season for the Harlan County Lady Bears. (Kim Henson)