Bears determined to ‘finish the job’ heading into 2021 season


John Henson

Harlan County team members include, from left, front row: Maddox Huff, Daniel Carmical, Josh Turner, Tyler Cole, James Gray, Jackson Huff and Jonah Swanner; back row: Caleb Johnson, Jared Rhymer, Trent Noah, Ethan Rhymer, Tristan Cooper and Samuel Henson; not pictured: Jeremiah Clem.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Watching an 11-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter of the regional championship game can lead to plenty of “what if” scenarios for both players and coaches, especially during the longest offseason in the history of basketball.
No summer schedule and a month-long delay of the 2021 season, both courtesy of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, have given the Harlan County Black Bears and coach Michael Jones plenty of time to think about what happened last March in the Corbin Arena when Knox Central battled back to spoil the Bears’ impressive postseason run that included a fifth 52nd District title in six years and regional tournament wins over Corbin and Clay County.
“We had a successful season last year but came up a little short,” Jones said. “It’s motivated the kids who are back to want to finish the job. It’s a totally different team, and we realize that, but the three starters we have back have really been pushing the kids in practice to work harder so we can take the next step.”
Like all teams around the state, the Bears have had to deal with interruptions in practice due to the coronavirus pandemic, including a two-week suspension of practice due to one positive case on the team.
“We’ve talked a lot to the kids about not using it as an excuse,” Jones said. “We don’t want to be that type of team.”
The Bears will count on two players ranked among the region’s top 10 to provide much of the scoring punch this season with 6-foot-6 freshman Trent Noah (11.8 points per game last season, 5.0 rebounds) and 6-3 senior wing Tyler Cole (13.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg) back from last year’s starting lineup.
Noah, ranked among Kentucky’s best in the Class of 2024, became the first eighth-grader to make the HCHS varsity last season and developed into an elite player as the season progressed, including a 20-point performance in the regional finals.
“We felt he was playing as well as anyone in the region at the end of the year and it showed in the regional tournament. He has matured a lot over the summer and played some great competition with his AAU team,” Jones said. “He’s gotten a lot quicker and he’s leaner. We look for him to have a huge year this season. He’s worked hard on his footwork and lateral movement and we feel he can guard any position on the floor.”
Cole, a three-year starter, came on strong during the Bears’ postseason surge, earning most valuable player honors in the 52nd District Tournament.
“We had a conversation last year about being aggressive, and when he decided to play that way it made us a better team. He’s very hard to guard off the dribble and he’s improved his outside shot,” Jones said. “He’s taken on a bigger leadership role as a senior. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t have a huge year.”
Jackson Huff (7.8, 2.4), a junior, is back for his second year as a starter. Huff has been the team’s 3-point specialist the past couple of years, but Jones expects to see his game expand this season.
“We want to see Jackson be more aggressive offensively, and he’s doing that in practice,” Jones said. “He can shoot with the best of them, but we need him to be able to put it on the floor more and get to the hole. He’s also done a great job in practice of rebounding and we are going to need that from him. We’re expecting big things from Jackson.”
Jonah Swanner (2.7, 1.1) and Daniel Carmical (3.9), both sophomore guards, were standouts on last year’s 12-5 junior varsity team and will compete for starting jobs this season. Swanner is a defensive standout with great quickness, while Carmical provides another long-range shooting threat.
“I really love the way Jonah gets to the basket. He does a great job using his quickness to get to the rim, and he’s crafty around the goal getting a shot off in traffic. We also love the way he defends with his quick hands and quick feet. He’ll be guarding the other team’s best player a lot of times,” Jones said. “Daniel is fearless on the offensive end, and I love that about him. He has one of the quickest releases of any kid I’ve coached. I have great confidence in the way he shoots. He has to improve on his defense, and he knows that.”
Josh Turner (2.8, 3.4), a 6-0 forward, was last year’s sixth man and provides strong leadership in addition to defense and rebounding.
“It doesn’t matter what Josh is doing, he’s 110 percent. Not many kids give that kind of effort and don’t ask for anything in return,” Jones said. “He’s a great leader and plays hard on both ends of the floor.”
James Gray, a 6-3 senior, provides depth in the post.
“He’s a tremendous defensive player the way he communicates. He’s improving offensively. We hope he can come in an give us some minutes,” Jones said.
Mattox Huff, a 6-foot guard, becomes the second eighth-grader to earn a varsity spot at HCHS, following Noah, and has already impressed the coaching staff with his potential, especially on the offensive end.
“He has been a big surprise. He has played really well offensively. He has a coolness about his game I really like. He can handle it and pass it really well, in addition to shooting,” Jones said. “His big challenge now is adjusting to the speed of the game and how aggressive people are. He has to learn to defend, and he knows that. Once he gets that down, he is going to be a very nice player.”
While he has several guards on the roster, Jones says finding someone to help Noah with ball-handling duties is a key to success this season.
“We’ve got to be able to get it from Point A to Point B,” he said. “If we can do that, we have a chance to be as good as last year. When teams want to take the ball out of Noah’s hands, we have to be able to get it across halfcourt and make it a halfcourt game. We have to find other kids who can step up and handle the ball.”
Jones plans a more aggressive approach on the defensive end this season.
“Defensively, we have to be better than we were last year,” he said. “Our kids are buying into it and working hard. I feel we’ll be good offensively. If we get it from Point A to Point B and defend people the way we want we have a chance to have a good year.”
Harlan County is ranked among the 13th Region favorites again this season in a group that also includes North Laurel, Knox Central and Clay County, with Harlan, South Laurel, Bell County and Corbin also considered contenders.
“It usually comes down to who is playing the best at the end of the season,” Jones said. “You have to look at North Laurel and Clay County with what they have coming back and you can’t count out the two-time defending champs, especially with the guard play they have coming back. We feel like we can be right there at the end, but we have another tough district, like we’ve had the last several years, so we have to get there to give ourselves a chance.”

Junior guard Jackson Huff is one of three returning starters for Harlan County this season. (John Crisologo)