Morris starts second rebuilding project with Jackets


Ray Welch

Middlesboro center Jay Tyler West worked inside against Harlan County’s Jacob Wilson and Trent Noah in action last season.

Lewis Morris has been through a rebuilding job before as the Middlesboro coach, turning a five-win team in 2017 to a district champion in 2019 and a 20-win team in 2020.
The former Cumberland High School basketball/baseball standout has another challenge ahead going into his fourth year with the Jackets as he tries to replace four starters in a season when he’s had no summer basketball and very little preseason work due to the same coronavirus pandemic that has sidelined teams around the state.
Middlesboro was perhaps hit harder by graduation than anyone in the 13th Region, losing 45 points per game off last year’s squad, led by four-year point guard Jabari Kyle and standout wing Trey Brock.
“I hope it’s not that bad (as four years ago). We just have to have some kids step up who haven’t played a lot,” Morris said. “We did lose four starters, but we have kids who did play last year. We have to find some scoring. I hope some of these kids can step up somewhere down the line. Not having summer ball really hurt us.”
Finding a replacement for Kyle, who ran the Middlesboro offense since he arrived in high school, will be the first priority in the rebuild. Blaine Woody, a junior who led the junior varsity team last year, may be the first option.
“Woody did a good job in some of the practices we had before they shut us down again,” Morris said. “We hope he can get us into stuff and score a little bit. He hasn’t played a lot of varsity, but he has played a lot of JV.”
Several other Jackets could also see action at the point, in addition to playing on the wing, including seniors Bryson Barnard (3.3 points per game last season) and Ethan Barton.
“Barton will play both guard positions. He’s athletic with some quickness,” Morris said. “Bryson played quite a bit last year. He’s a good shooter with some quickness. We hope we can help us.”
Cayden Grigsby, a freshman with a chance to be a future standout, will also compete for a starting job at guard after a strong fall with the Middlesboro football team at quarterback.
“He played some varsity for us last year, even though he came out late due to a football injury,” Morris said. “He’s a competitor.”
Eric Helton (2.9, 2.0), a 6-1 senior, was the Jackets’ sixth man a year ago and is expected to play a key role this season.
“He played a lot last year. He’s capable of making shots and he’s played for four years. He should be able to step in and help us a lot,” Morris said.
The one spot that is filled with a returning starter is at center where 6-2 junior Jay Tyler West (3.9, 4.2) is back. West is also a football standout at defensive end and gives the basketball Jackets athleticism and strength in the post.
“He’s going to have to continue to grow as a player and score a little more this year,” Morris said. “He has good size and is athletic. It will just take him a while to get where he needs to be. He did a good job for last year, but he hasn’t had a lot of pressure put on him. He will have to step up this year.
Zach Tong, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior, gives Morris another option inside. Trey King, a 6-4 freshman, could see action at forward. Junior guard Bradley Hale and sophomore forward Christian Kyle also provide depth.
While Middlesboro is in a rebuild mode, Harlan brings back four starters while Harlan County and Bell County have three back each. All three of the Jackets’ district rivals will be ranked among the top eight in the region heading into the season.
“We’ll have to play really hard every night. The region as a whole is pretty good,” Morris said. “We have to find the best people and go with them. We just need some of our guys to step up.”