Potent 1-2-3 punch gives HCHS hope for first regional title


Team members include, from left, front row: Alexis Sergent, Josalyn Lee, Katelyn Rogers, Hannah Foster, Halle Raleigh, Lola Maggard and Kayle Duckworth. middle row: Hailey Austin, Kerrigan Creech, Jacey Lewis, Allee Galloway, Brandy Adams and Brenna Early; back row: Destiny Clark, Hannah Johnson, Emily Evans, Emily Long, Madison Banks, Kayla Irvin and Caleigh Cornett.

John Henson, Managing 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)

With eight district championships and 11 winning seasons in their 11-year history, the Harlan County High School softball program has grown accustomed to lofty expectations. The excitement surrounding the program may have reached a new level this spring with seven players back who have started. The Lady Bears are coming off a 20-7 season in 2019 that included a fourth straight district title and a trip to the regional final four after four straight first-round exits.
Much of the reason for the optimism is a 1-2-3 punch in the middle of the HCHS lineup that may be as lethal as any in the region. Senior catcher Emily Long is back with the team after a year away, joining senior third baseman Hannah Johnson and junior second baseman Brandy Adams to give the Lady Bears a potent trio.
“I’ve looked back at some of our previous teams and we’ve had some great hitters, but as far as power I don’t see a better group,” Harlan County coach Tim McElyea said. “I don’t see a pitcher in the region, and I know we have some good ones, who can dominate these three. I think it’s the best 3-4-5 in the region.”
McElyea is hopeful that this could be the best team in HCHS history with the experience coming back, especially the potent middle of the order. The Lady Bears must also replace the three graduated starters, including Nikki Creech in center, Emily Collett at shortstop and Rhileigh Alred in left.
“I think it is,” McElyea said.”We need to get the top of our lineup worked out in front of our big three. We also have to lock down a couple of spots on defense.”
Destiny Clark is back at first base for her senior season after hitting .403 last spring.
“She came on strong about midway through the season and had a big hit in the district tournament,” McElyea said. “She is pretty solid defensively also.”
Adams moves from catcher back to second base with Long back in the lineup. Adams hit .440 last season with 40 hits and 29 RBI and was especially effective in pressure situations.
“She’s a power hitter in the gaps, which is very good to have,” McElyea said. “She saved us last year behind the plate, but I think she’s happy to be back at second base.”
Jacey Lewis, a junior who hit .304 last year in a reserve role, is the early favorite to take over for Collett at shortstop. Freshman Hailey Austin and Adams could also see action at shortstop.
“We have some options there, but Jacey is quick and could help us toward the top of the lineup with her speed,” McElyea said. “Shortstop is a critical position and we lost a good one in Collett.”
Johnson is back at third base after a junior season that ranked among the best in school history with a .634 average that included three homers, 53 RBI and 52 hits while striking out only once all year for an on-base percentage of .694
“What can you say about her season with one strikeout in 95 at bats for someone with power,” McElyea said. “She had an amazing year.”
Emily Evans, a senior who hit .338 last season playing second base, will see action at first base, second base and the outfield this season.
“I think she’s gotten a little stronger this year and can help us at several positions,” McElyea said.
Long is back at catcher after a year away and McElyea expects her to pick up where she left off as one of the region’s best at the position.
“I thought the year off might hurt her, but her arm is just as good as before,” he said. “She is trying to pull too much at the plate right now, but I’m sure that will come around. She will be a good power hitter for us again.”
McElyea had to find a center fielder for the first time in five years with Creech at the University of the Cumberlands after hitting .529 last season with 30 stolen bases, her fifth season as a starter. Allee Galloway will likely shift from right field to take over for Creech.
“Nikki saved us in several games the past few years with some of the catches she made,” McElyea said. “Allee will be fine. She tracks the ball well and has a very strong arm.”
McElyea has several options on the corner spots, led by junior Brenna Early in left and either Evans or Clark in right. Josalyn Lee, a freshman, has impressed the coaching staff with her tremendous speed. Austin, another freshman with good speed, could also see action in the outfield, as could senior Madison Banks.
Kerrigan Creech is back on the mound after a breakout sophomore campaign that included a 2.90 earned run average and 130 strikeouts in 130 innings pitched.
“When we started last year, I was concerned about our pitching, but Kerrigan did a great job. She doesn’t get rattled, and she kept us in games with her changeup and great location,” McElyea said.