Youthful HCHS squad ready to make a move in tough 13th Region race

By John Henson, Managing Editor


While looking into the future may be tempting for a talented young squad that features three sophomores and one freshmen among its top seven, the 2022 Harlan County Black Bears plan on living in the present as they try to build on an eight-year run of winning seasons that has included five 52nd District titles, one regional championship and what has seemed like a permanent spot among the 13th Region contenders.
“We have a young team even though we have some kids who have played a lot, but at any given time we could have three sophomores and a freshman on the floor,” said coach Michael Jones, who enters his ninth season at the helm. “It does look good for the future, but we say all the time we don’t want to focus on the future. We want to focus on right now.”
The Bears lost two starters from last year’s 19-6 squad that suffered the first two losses in school history to Harlan, including a 61-55 defeat in the 52nd District Tournament finals. HCHS went on to fall to Knox Central in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament with standout point guard Trent Noah sidelined by a foot injury that also kept him out of action all summer.
Noah, who averaged 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds last year, is back for his third year as a starter but his first at wing. The 6-foot-6 sophomore is ranked among the state’s best in the Class of 2024 and is receiving attention from several Division I schools.
“He’s a kid who has put in a tremendous amount of work and is deserving of all of the notoriety coming his way right now. What is impressive is he’s still very humble,” Jones said. “We expect Trent’s numbers to go up. I think his injury made him even more hungry. He realizes things can be taken away and he’s become more focused and a leader of our team. He’s more vocal than last year also, which is good for our young kids.”
The emergence of 6-1 freshman Maddox Huff (6.0 points per game last season) allowed Jones to make the move. Huff demonstrated during summer scrimmages that he was more than capable of taking on a bigger role in the Harlan County offense.
“We like the flow of the offense with Maddox. We are going to move him to the point and Trent to the wing. I have all the confidence in the world in Maddox with a year under his belt,” Jones said. “He played a lot for us last year, and I’m excited to have him as our point guard. Trent will still have his opportunities, but we think moving him to the wing and Maddox to the point will make our offense better.”
Huff’s older brother, Jackson (7.8 pig, 3.8 rpg), is back for his third season as a starter where he gives the Bears a 3-point threat who can also help on the defensive end.
“It’s the senior year for Jackson and he’s excited and becoming more of a leader. We expect him to have a big year,” Jones said. “We want to send him out the right way. He’s been a joy to coach because he works so hard. He shoots the ball very well and can defend. He does all the little things well. We want him to play free and put it out on the floor when the shot isn’t there, and that makes him more of a threat when he plays that way.”
Jonah Swanner, a sophomore who averaged 2.6 points per game last year, was a force on the defensive end during the summer as his athleticism created havoc for opponents and led to plenty of points in transition for the Bears.
“I thought Jonah was the difference in our team this summer. We played a lot better after he came over from baseball,” Jones said. “He changes everything about our team, especially defensively. He is probably the most athletic kid in our school and can put a tremendous amount of pressure on anyone handling the ball. He does a great job of attacking the rim and finishing among bigger kids. We’ll give Jonah some freedom to bring it up when he gets it off the boards.”
Daniel Carmical (7.8), a junior, provides another 3-point threat who Jones is counting on to become more dangerous off the dribble.
“Daniel is one of the best shooters around, especially after he hits a couple,” Jones said. “We have to get him playing on both ends of the floor, and he knows that. He is also doing a better job of putting it on the floor. We need him to do that because it makes him too easy to guard.”
Jeremiah Clem, a junior, will also see extensive action and provide quality depth after two seasons of leading the HCHS junior varsity squad.
“We asked some things out of Jeremiah this summer and he did a great job. He did a great job of guarding some bigger people,” Jones said. “He has improved so much since last season. We expect him to come in and play some major minutes.”
Tristan Cooper, a 6-3 junior who saw action in 14 games last year as he worked his way into the rotation, will play an even bigger role this season.
“He has such a presence inside. He gives us a lot of toughness. He can rebound and take charges and has improved his outside shot,” Jones said.
Offense isn’t expected to be a problem with so many shooters on the roster, but an improved defense is crucial for the Bears to reach their goals this season.
“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time on defense and being able to guard. We feel we can play well enough offensively to play with anybody, but are we going to be able to play defense and rebound. We’re concentrating on keeping people in front of us and forcing them to make shots on the floor and putting a butt on people and rebounds. If we can do those two things, we think we can have a special season,” Jones said. “We’re trying to play a little more man-to-man. We think we have the team now where we can match up with five people on the floor. We may do some trapping out of it and take the ball out of certain people’s hands. For that to be successful we have to be able to rebound.”
Making another regional run remains the goal for the young Bears, even with 13th Region expected to be among the state’s toughest this season. Defending champ Knox Central and North Laurel remain the favorites, but Corbin, Harlan, South Laurel, HCHS and Bell County are also contenders.
“People don’t realize how tough this region is, especially if they aren’t from here,” Jones said. “You have two teams who could be top 25 going into the season. Night in and night out it’s going to be a challenge. If we keep improving, we feel we can be there at the end.”
With three teams ranked among the region’s top seven, the 52nd should be the region’s toughest again this year.
“There are no guarantees in this district,” Jones said. “You know Middlesboro is capable of beating anyone and Harlan and Bell County are among the top teams in the region. It’s going to be a fight to see which two get out. We have to be ready to go every night, and we hope we’re playing our best at the end of the year.”