Chamberlain begins rebuilding job with HCHS baseball

%0ATeam+members+include%2C+from+left%2C+front+row%3A+Austin+Roark%2C+Jay+Harris%2C+Ethan+Griffith%2C+Mason+Combs%2C+Isaac+Kelly%2C+Jacob+Brown%2C+Jonah+Swanner%2C+Shawn+Carroll%2C+Tyler+Lunsford+and+Nathan+Shepherd%3B+back+row%3A+Quinton+Boggs%2C+Patrick+Mandrell%2C+Nick+Hunting%2C+Karsten+Dixon%2C+Braydon+Burton%2C+Justin+Brown%2C+Brayden+Blakley%2C+Jordan+Steele%2C+Tristan+Cooper%2C+Zac+Collett%2C+C.J.+Carruba+and+Josh+Swanner.%0A

Team members include, from left, front row: Austin Roark, Jay Harris, Ethan Griffith, Mason Combs, Isaac Kelly, Jacob Brown, Jonah Swanner, Shawn Carroll, Tyler Lunsford and Nathan Shepherd; back row: Quinton Boggs, Patrick Mandrell, Nick Hunting, Karsten Dixon, Braydon Burton, Justin Brown, Brayden Blakley, Jordan Steele, Tristan Cooper, Zac Collett, C.J. Carruba and Josh Swanner.

John Henson, Sports Editor

(Editor’s note: The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has suspended the start of spring sports seasons until May 1 due to the corona virus pandemic. This story was written before the season was delayed)

In his seven seasons as an assistant baseball coach at Harlan County High School, Drew Chamberlain watched the Bears go from a regional runner-up and 28-10 team in 2013 to an 8-17 squad last spring that missed the 13th Region Tournament for the first time in the 11-year history of the program.
Chamberlain’s task as a first-year head coach after taking over for John Lewis is to reverse this trend and turn the Bears into a regional contender once again even though nine seniors are gone, including six starters.
“I think our boys, especially the seniors, have a sour taste in their mouths from last year,” Chamberlain said. “They are a good group of seniors for me to start my head coaching career off with. They are competitive kids and they are hungry. I’m very positive. I think we’ll be competitive and have a better season.”
Pitching is expected to be a strength for this year’s team with senior Jay Harris and freshman Brayden Blakley returning to the top two spots in the HCHS rotation. Harris posted a 4-7 mark last season with a 4.13 earned run average and 67 strikeouts in 64.1 innings, while Blakley finished 2-4 with a 4.67 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 39 innings. Both moved up in the rotation after senior Benjamin Lewis went down with a season-ending injury.
“I think our pitching will be even stronger this year and one of our strengths. Jay played against some top-notch competition, on the same team that (former HCHS pitcher) Jared (Sizemore) used to play for,” Chamberlain said.
Blakley, now close to 6-6 in height, made an immediate impact for the Bears on the mound last year as an eighth-grader and will play an even bigger role this season.
“He’s still learning how to pitch, but he can throw several pitches. He throws strikes and competes and will challenge hitters,” Chamberlain said.
Quinton Boggs and Jordan Steele will also see action on the mound, along with sophomores Nathan Shepherd and Karsten Dixon, freshman Tristan Cooper and eighth-grader Shawn Carroll.
“We need a lot of innings from Boggs. We’ll also need some innings from Cooper,” Chamberlain said. “I expect Steele to pitch quite a bit in relief, and we’ll also get some innings from Carroll.”
While the Bears’ pitching was competitive last season, defense was often the pitching staff’s worst enemy.
“Defense has been one of my points of emphasis. We went back to the drawing board with some of the (former Cumberland coach) Roger Morris short-hops and back-hand drills,” Chamberlain said. “I think we’ve improved. We’ve been able to take a lot of infield this year. We have to improve on everything, but defense is crucial.”
Chamberlain is counting on some power from his first basemen with Boggs and Steele expected to share time there while also serving as a designated hitter and pitching.
“I see both of them in the lineup because they can hit the ball so well,” he said. “They give us some power potential in the middle of the lineup. They are both big boys who we need to drive in runs.”
Josh Swanner, a junior, is the early favorite at second base, with both Blakley and Cooper also seeing action.
“Josh made some plays at second in our scrimmage that we haven’t seen from our second baseman in a while,” Chamberlain said. “He’s a very good athlete.”
“I think Cooper also has some athleticism and has grown a ton since last year. He’s pretty quick even though he’s about 6-3 now,” added Chamberlain
Harris and Blakley will share time at shortstop, depending on who is pitching.
“Jay makes the plays defensively, and he’s fast and athletic. We really need him to be more aggressive at the plate. He can put pressure on teams with his speed, but he has to get on base,” Chamberlain said.
Zac Collett, a junior, is back at third base.
“He has improved a lot since last season. He’s grown 3 or 4 inches, got in the weight room and went to a lot of camps in the offseason,” Chamberlain said. “I look at him as a two-hole hitter because he can handle the bat and bunt. We expect him to hit a lot better this year.”
Swanner will also see action at third base.
The Bears lost senior catcher Tyler Casolari, who was third on the team last year with a .269 average, when he left school after football season. With Casolari gone, freshman Isaac Kelly will move into the starting lineup a year earlier than expected.
“I think he can handle it,” Chamberlain said. “Isaac looks the part. He’s pretty experienced, even though he’s a freshman, because he’s played a lot of travel ball. He’s a big boy and he’s tough and smart. He has the potential to be a power hitter eventually.”
Senior center fielder Justin Brown was expected to be an anchor of the HCHS defense and ignite the offense from the top spot in the lineup after leading the team with a .352 average and 26 stolen bases. He suffered a knee injury during football season and aggravated that injury recently. He’s scheduled for an MRI and his status for the season is uncertain.
“To me, he’s one of the best defensive outfielders I’ve seen in our region,” Chamberlain said.
Nathan Shepherd, a sophomore, will take over in center if Brown is unable to play or will start in left if Brown returns.
“Nate is not the freak athlete Justin is, but he is very athletic and has a great arm,” Chamberlain said. “He covers a lot of ground and has good instincts.”
Jacob Brown, a junior, is the early favorite to take over in left if Brown is unable to play.
“Jacob is fast and is a very good defender with good instincts,” Chamberlain said. “He needs to continue improving on offense.”
C.J. Carruba, a senior, moves from a reserve role at second base to take over in right field following the graduation of Garry Henson, who was second on the team in hitting last year at .272 with 15 stolen bases.
“He approached me about the move, and it’s worked out really well,” Chamberlain said. “He’s somebody with some varsity experience and some athleticism. He can make the plays in right field, and he puts the ball in play.”
Middlesboro has dominated the 52nd District in recent seasons, winning the last four championships. HCHS had finished second four straight years until being knocked out by Bell in last year’s first round. Chamberlain likes the Bears’ chances this season of making a run at their first district title since winning two straight in 2013 and 2014.
“This district is very competitive,” Chamberlain said, “but it’s one of our goals to get back to the top of the district and compete in the region.”