Even though projections weren’t especially high for the Harlan Green Dragons in 2020 with nine seniors, including six starters, gone from a 9-15 squad, coach Cory Estep was disappointed his team didn’t get a chance to try.to exceed expectations.
“I hated it for all the seniors across the state who lost their senior year, at least the spring sports,” Estep said. “The guys who are back this year aren’t taking tomorrow for granted. They know it all could be taken away and they have to enjoy it while they can.”
Estep has been impressed by the Dragons’ work in the offseason.
“Strength is a big difference for several of our guys. They have matured and gotten stronger,” he said. “I’m very pleased with where we are, but we don’t have our basketball guys yet.”
Pitching is always a crucial part of success in baseball and the Dragons have very little experience.
“Pitching is a concern for us, but defense is also crucial,” Estep said. “We’ve fielded at a percentage of .850 the past few seasons. If we don’t field it better, we won’t be in a good position. We have to get better.”
Ethan Cornett, a senior, was one of the Dragons’ top pitchers two years ago before suffering a shoulder injury that sidelined him for much of the past two seasons. His return to the mound is still in doubt, according to Estep.
“We are waiting to see if he will be cleared to pitch,” Estep said. “We want to do what’s best for him.”
John Mark Bryson, Jaeden Gist, Noah Lewis and Evan Browning are expected to lead the Dragons’ staff. Bryson and Browning are the only pitchers who saw regular action on the mound two years ago.
“We graduated about 85 percent of our innings over the last couple of years,” Estep said. “Pitching could be a concern, but we’ve brought some pitching coaches in with Mikey Hensley and Tyler Cornett. They will be help us.”
Jeremiah Mills, a senior, is the Dragons’ most experienced players and is back to anchor the outfield in center where his speed makes him one of the best in the region, according to Estep. Mills could fill the important role as the Dragons’ third hitter as he continues to mature.
“I will go as far as to say he’s the best in the region as far as covering ground. If it’s hit in the air, he has a chance,” Estep said. “He would have been a four-year starter if we hadn’t missed last season. He’s worked on improving his arm and he looks really sharp out there. He wants to be that role model now like others did for him when he was younger.”
Shane Lindsey and Cornett, both seniors, are candidates at first base, along with junior Andrew Roark. Lindsey was a starter at first base in 2019 and also saw action in the outfield.
“Shane has really good hands. He’s one of the best we’ve had at first since I’ve been here, along with Austin Wilson,” Estep said. “We really need him to be a big bat for us in the middle of the order. I think that will be a key for us.”
Cornett has been sidelined for much of the past two seasons, and Estep is hopeful he will be able to play this season.
“He is a good contact hitter who will always do his job and do it well,” he said. “I hope he can get healthy this year and be able to play. I want what’s best for him.”
Roark and freshman Jared Moore are competing for the starting job at third base.
“It will be a dogfight over there,” Estep said. “Jared is a big, physical kid with a lot of pop. He still has some things to figure out as far as his swing. Roark is very similar with good contact and power.”
Lewis, a junior, is taking over as the Dragons’ starting catcher.
“He’s always wanting to know what he can do to get better. He has a thirst for knowledge,” Estep said. “He wants to be the best catcher in the region. He’s very athletic and will see a lot of action on the mound.”
Basketball standout Jaedyn Gist, a junior, can play several positions, including shortstop and catcher, and will provide speed near the top of the batting order.
“Jaedyn can catch, play short, play second or the outfield, but he will be in the lineup,” Estep said. “His athleticism and competitiveness is impressive. He is a bulldog and will push guys to get better.”
Browning, a junior, will share time at shortstop with Gist.
“He will get the ball in the air at shortstop. He gets rid of the ball fast,” Estep said. “He’s a good contact hitter and will hit at the top of the order.”
Bryson, a junior, and Donovan Montanaro, a sophomore, will split time at second base.
“Montanaro is athletic and fits into the style of baseball I like with his speed. He also has more pop than you might think for his size,” Estep said. “Bryson has really good hands and could help us near the top of the order if he keeps improving.”
Aiden Johnson, a freshman, will also see action at second base.
Estep said there are numerous candidates to fill the other two outfield spots on either side of Mills, including seniors David Vanwinkle and Britt Lawson, as well as Gist, Lindsey, Bryson and Montanaro.
“We have a lot more infielders than outfielders at this point, so we need to have some people to step into those roles,” Estep said. “Vanwinkle and Lawson have good speed and could help us in several positions.”
Seniors Trey Barnes and Isaiah Hall could also contribute with Barnes in the outfield and Hall at third base.
“I feel that Trey can come in and contribute to our athleticism in the outfield. I haven’t had the chance yet to see him on the field. He hasn’t played since eighth grade, but he has speed and is very athletic.,” Estep said. “Once Isaiah comes off the injured list, he will be able to compete some at third. He is a very strong kid who has pop in his bat. “
Estep also expects help from freshmen Kevin Thomas Lee and Gunnar Snelling.
“They have been improving tremendously since we started. Lee looks like he can wind up contributing some on the mound this year and in the future, as well as the outfield. Snelling is very strong as a freshman and is a very good contact hitter. He may be able to see some at bats as we go throughout the year,” he said.
Estep doesn’t see any clear-cut favorites in this year’s 52nd District race.
“Middlesboro was hit heavy with graduation and Bell County only has a couple back from two years ago. I know Harlan County has quite a few young guys who played a lot of summer ball,” Estep said. “I think our team will compete. I think they will be scrappy.”