Jackets edge HCHS for fifth straight district title

John Smith has been a part of crazy district championship games before, both as a player and more recently as a coach at Middlesboro. Not many can compare to Tuesday’s back-and-forth showdown at Harlan County High School.
Smith’s Jackets were down 4-0 after two innings, then tied 4-4 halfway through the fifth, then down 8-4 after five, then up 10-8 halfway through the sixth, then tied 10-10 after six. Smith had a moment to reflect on Middlesboro’s fifth straight championship after Connor Mason brought home Kam Wilson with a sacrifice fly in the seventh to claim an 11-10 win.
“Since Harlan County has come in (to the district) it seems like it’s been a battle every year between the two schools,” Smith said. “This game was just a roller coaster ride through seven innings for both teams. Each team was up and each team was down.”
Wilson had two doubles to lead the offense for the 15-14 Jackets. Chase Adkins, Mason and Conner Winterberger added doubles. Riley Gent, Eric Helton and Warren Vaught contributed singles.
Will Cassim had a double and single for the 12-20 Bears. Isaac Kelly added two singles and three RBI. Nate Shepherd, Zac Collett, Tristan Cooper, Josh Swanner, Karsten Dixon and Jacob Brown added one single each.
Kelly and Cooper each had RBI hits in the first inning as the Bears recorded five singles against Winterberger, the Jackets’ starter. HCHS left eight runners on base in the first four innings.
Cassim doubled to start the second inning, then Winterberger walked three straight to force in a run. A wild pitch pushed the lead to 4-0.
Wilson had a two-run double in the fourth inning to put the Jackets on the board. Winterberger and Adkins had doubles earlier in the inning, one on a lost fly ball in left. Vaught added an RBI single.
The Jackets tied the game with a walk and error in the fifth inning.
HCHS reclaimed control with a four-run fifth. Two runs scored on an errant throw to second base on a fielder’s choice grounder by Collett. Kelly added an RBI single, and another run scored on a double steal.
Middlesboro exploded for six runs in the sixth inning as the HC defense fell apart with three errors, including two dropped fly balls. Mason had the big hit in the inning with a two-run double.
“The six-run inning was the difference, I felt. We made a couple of mistakes,” Harlan County coach Drew Chamberlain said. “But just like last night (a win over Harlan), they didn’t give up. They fought back and tied it. We weren’t on the right side of it, but it was a good game.”
Harlan County pulled even with a two-run sixth. Brown’s bunt single was the only hit of the inning for the Bears.
Wilson earned the win for the Jackets in relief, giving up two runs on two hits in 2 1/3 innings.
“He’s stepped up for us this year and really came on during the season,” Smith said. “We ask a lot from him and he’s stepped up, just like he did tonight. It was a big pressure situation for a freshman and he battled and got us through the seventh inning.”
The district title was the fifth straight for the Jackets, including four wins over HCHS in the finals.
“We graduated six guys last year and nobody on this team had varsity experience except Tyler Harris,” Smith said. “We only have a .500 record, but we had to build through the season. Everyone on the team has contributed at some point.”
Both teams advanced to the 13th Region Tournament at Jackson County.
Middlesboro 000 316 1 — 11. 8. 4
Harlan County 220 042 0 — 10 10. 7
Winterberger, Wilson (5) and Gent; Dixon, Shepherd (6) and Kelly. WP — Wilson. LP — Shepherd (1-7).