Chamberlain looking forward to first season as coach of Black Bears


Ernie Sexton/East Kentucky Photography

HCHS baseball Team members include, from left, front row: Jonah Swanner, Josh Swanner, Tyler Lunsford, Isaac Kelly, Liam Garland, Alex Creech, Jacob Brown, Jaydon Sutton, Colby Johnson, Daven Johnson and Shawn Carroll; back row: Brayden Blakley, Tristan Cooper, Karsten Dixon, Will Cassim, coach Jerry Blakley, coach Drew Chamberlain, coach Brendan Rutherford, Zac Coleltt, Mason Combs, Patrick Mandrell, Samuel Henson, Carter Howard and Nathan Shepherd.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Drew Chamberlain is preparing a second time for his first season as head baseball coach at Harlan County High School, working to reverse a four-year decline of a program that was once among the best in the 13th Region.
“It’s been 22 months since we’ve played a baseball game. I told our guys we have to knock off the rust. We know there will make mistakes,” said Chamberlain, a former pitcher at Cumberland High School and Union College. “I feel as though most teams will be like that.”
Chamberlain will have very few players back with varsity experience from the 2019 season when the Bears stumbled to an 8-17 record and missed the 13th Region Tournament for the first time in school history.
“I truly think we’ll have a good team, a competitive team. They will work hard to get better,” he said. “I think our team will swing the bats. I think we’ll have a pretty good hitting team by midseason. We’re really focusing on putting the ball in play. We want to attack the ball and not get behind in counts.”
The Black Bears hope they have an ace in lanky 6-foot-4 sophomore Brayden Blakley, who was their No. 2 starter as an eighth-grader before undergoing shoulder surgery last year.
“Brayden pitched well as an eighth-grader, but he had shoulder surgery in the summer and is still recovering,” Chamberlain said. “He just needs to gain some strength back and some confidence.”
Tristan Cooper is also expected to play a key role on the staff, along with Nathan Shepherd and Karsten Dixon and freshmen Colby Johnson and Shawn Carroll and eighth-graders Liam Garland and Alex Creech.
“We lack experience and need someone to step up,” Chamberlain said. “Our pitching will have to develop some from top to bottom. We need some people like Tristan to step up.”
Blakley and Cooper will also play huge roles on defense as they share time at shortstop.
“Brayden started there some two years ago, especially when Jay Harris pitched. He’s played a lot of travel ball and has some big-game experience. He has confidence he can make the plays,” Chamberlain said. “Tristan has gotten bigger and stronger but I haven’t seen him a lot since he just got finished with basketball.”
Chamberlain hopes senior Josh Swanner can provide a spark at the top of the order as he takes over at second base.
“He’s crazy athletic,” Chamberlain said. “He can make plays not many others can make. I’m trying to slow him down where he makes all the routine plays. He’s still a little inconsistent at the plate. He can bunt. If he will put the ball in play consistently, he will probably hit high in the order.”
Zac Collett, a senior, is one of the few holdovers from the 2019 lineup as he returns at third base. Collett has matured quite a bit and is being counted on as one of the Bears’ top hitters in 2021.
“He’s gotten so much better. He grew and his arm strength is a lot better. I think he’s one of the best third basemen we’ve had here,” Chamberlain said.
Shawn Carroll, a freshman, could see action at third base when Collett moves to catcher.
“He’s like a Zac a few years ago in that he needs to grow a little and get stronger, but he is very fundamentally sound. He’s not overwhelmed,” Chamberlain said.
Karsten Dixon, a junior, and Will Cassim, a freshman, are expected to compete for the starting job at first base.
“They don’t have a lot of experience, but they are both hard workers and serious about getting better,” Chamberlain said. “It will come down to who makes the plays and who gets hot at the plate. They may take some lumps early because it’s a learning curve for both of them.”
Isaac Kelly, a sophomore, is expected to handle the bulk of the catching duties, with Collett also available, if needed. Kelly will hit in the middle of the order.
“He’s hard-nosed and is willing to work,” Chamberlain said. “He’s a great kid who will do what we tell him. He has good bat speed and hits line drives.”
Shepherd, a junior, will anchor the outfield in center. He moves from a corner outfield spot two years ago.
“He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve coached,” Chamberlain said. “He really works hard. He has good speed and good instincts and a really good arm.”
Jacob Brown, a senior, is the probable starter in left field.
“He’s fundamentally sound and gets perfect reads on the ball. He’s a good defensive outfielder,” Chamberlain said.
Patrick Mandrell appears to have the edge for the starting job in right, especially after he homered in a scrimmage at Letcher Central last week.
“If he keeps swinging the bat like he did at Letcher, he will give us some offense at that spot,” Chamberlain said.
Braydon Burton, a sophomore will also compete for a starting job in the outfield, along with freshmen Colby Johnson and Daven Johnson.
With no dominant teams coming back in the 52nd District, Chamberlain likes the Black Bears’ chances of returning to the top after a seven-year championship drought.
“I think we have as good a shot as anybody to win,” Chamberlain said. “All the coaches are going in blind this year. I don’t know that many players from other teams. I feel we’re at the level where we can compete for a district championship.”