Dragons upbeat about season despite graduation losses



Evan Browning delivered a pitch in a game last season. Browning is expected to start at shortstop and will also see action on the mound.

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 coronavirus pandemic. This story was written before the season was delayed. Neither of the Harlan team photos were taken before school was suspended)

Cory Estep refuses to wallow in the negatives as he heads into his fourth season as Harlan’s baseball coach, even if the numbers indicate he could.
Harlan lost nine seniors, including six starters (Will Varner, Kilian Ledford, Michael Robinson, Josh Knuckles, Caleb Adkins and Jared Hawkins) who ranked in the top six spots on the team as far as hitting last season, from last year’s 9-15 squad that fell to Middlesboro in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament.
“If I had to define our team in one word, it’s scrappy. We have guys who want to compete and want to play. They want to know what they can do to get better,” Estep said.
Pitching is the biggest area of concern for the Dragons with Varner, the Dragons’ ace the past two years, now playing in college and junior Ethan Cornett again slowed by a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for all but two games last year. Robinson, the team’s leader in appearances last year, also graduated. Evan Browning and Will McCarthy, who threw 19 and 14 innings, respectively, last season are the only pitchers back with extensive experience. John Mark Bryson, Jaeden Gist, Shane Lindsey, Jeremiah Mills, Jared Moore and Donovan Montanaro will also see action on the mound.
“When Ethan is able to get back healthy he will give us another option. I know he will continue to put 110 percent into getting back,” Estep said. “Pitching is definitely a question mark and it will determine our success. I like the grittiness of this group. They will compete.”
Lindsey, a junior who hit .233 last season, can play left field or first base, where he shares time with senior Wil McCarthy.
“Will is a big target over there who has improved a lot over the last year,” Estep said. “We’ve done a lot of individual work in practice and worked on the small things and getting better. Shane has also improved and is getting better as we continue to go. They will both be in the lineup depending on our pitching situation.”
Bryson, a sophomore who hit .250 last season in limited action, is the early favorite at second base.
“John Mark worked hard last year to get better even though he had a lot of talent he was sitting behind,” Estep said. “He improved tremendously from that work and will help a lot more this year. He has great hands and is able to field at a higher rate this year than last.”
Browning, a sophomore who hit. 250 last season while playing several positions, is expected to take over at shortstop.
“He has got a whole lot smoother with a year under his belt. He has developed himself and matured quite a bit,” Estep said.
Jaeden Gist, a sophomore who excelled on the basketball court, is back after a year away from baseball and could provide a big boost for the Dragons at several positions, including shortstop.
“You can not teach athleticism and he brings that and his competitiveness to the table,” Estep said. “He hates losing and will do whatever it takes to win. I think he will get some others on board as well, which is what I like. He will be a leader as a sophomore and can help tremendously wherever we need him.”
Andrew Roark, a sophomore who hit .500 last season in limited action, will share time at third base with eighth-grader Jared Moore.
“It’s going to be a battle all year between the two of them,” Estep said. “They both have perks to their game and are even right now. They both field the ball well and both hit very well. It’s going to be a competition between the two.”
The graduation of Josh Knuckles, who caught almost every game for the Dragons last year, left a big hole that sophomore Noah Lewis is being counted on to fill.
“He came in with the mindset that he would catch and be the best catcher he could be,” Estep said. “I like his grittiness. He wants to come in and produce and get better. He has a good arm and will be able to help us control the running game.”
Jeremiah Mills, a junior, is back to anchor the outfield in center where his speed makes him one of the best in the region, according to Estep, drawing comparisons to former Harlan star Noah Busroe.
“I will go as far as to say he’s the best in the region as far as covering the ground. If it’s hit in the air, he has a chance,” Estep said. “He wants to be on the same level as Noah Busroe. He strives to be that guy.”
Lindsey is expected to play left field except when McCarthy is on the mound and he’s filling in at first.
“Lindsey is very good with his fundamentals. He tries to do everything the right way,” Estep said.
There are several candidates in right field, including senior Jesse Whitehead, junior David VanWinkle and freshman Cameron Maples.
Without a dominant team in the 52nd District, Estep likes the Dragons’ chances of making a run in the postseason.
“Just like every year, we’ll see where we are in May,” he said. “The grittiness and will to grind and scrappiness will take us a lot farther than anything else.”