Burton likes what she’s seen from Lady Bears going into first season


Team members include, from left, front row: Lindsey Skidmore, Jade Burton, Kendall Brock, Hannah Raleigh, Aviya Halcomb, Rylie Maggard and Maddy Blair; middle row: Kassidy Hall, Emilee Caldwell, Brooklyn Whitehead, Katelyn Rogers, Bethany Robbins and Allie Kelly; back row: Brittlegh Estep, Hailey Austin, Ashton Evans, Jenna Wilson, Abby Fields, Halanah Shepherd, Lesleigh Brown and Honesty Thomas.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Unlike many first-year coaches, Harlan County’s Shelby Burton doesn’t have to try to perform miracles or even transform a losing program.
Burton, a graduate of Cawood High School and Lincoln Memorial University. inherits a program that has produced 12 straight winning seasons since the school opened in 2008 and has made 12 trips to the regional tournament with eight district titles overall and four runner-up finishes. HCHS won four straight 52nd District titles from 2016 through 2019 but struggled to a 13-10 mark last spring after several years of heavy graduation losses. The Lady Bears were hit hard by graduation again last May with catcher Brandy Adams, pitcher Kerrigan Creech, third baseman Allee Galloway and outfielders Jacey Lewis and Brenna Early among those completing their high school careers.
“There is lot of good history here,” Burton said. “We want to build on that and we want to exceed what we’ve done before. We always shoot for something higher. We have goals as far as district play, but we also have goals as far as the region. I think with all the work we’ve put in, we’ll see a lot of progress. I think we can surpass what most people of this team by midseason.”
Burton likes the Lady Bears’ response to her since she took over the program in September and immediately went to work with preseason workouts.
“I know having a woman coach is different. I run a tight ship, but I think everything I’m doing is for the betterment of the team,” Burton said. “I want to get every ounce of ability from every girl. I want to make sure every girl who wants to play on the next level is prepared.”
Pitching is huge to any team’s success in softball and the Lady Bears must replace, a three-year starters in the circle. Madison Blair, a freshman, gained some valuable experience last season and is taking over the job this spring.
“I got to watch Maddie last year and she is very consistent. Her mind is set on doing her job and she does it efficiently,” Burton said. “She is so competitive, but she is able to shake things off. She has worked hard in the offseason and will surprise some people.”
Brittleigh Estep and Halanah Shepherd will also see action on the mound.
“Bebe has worked hard and her arm is one of the best on the team,” Burton said. “Shepherd also has a great arm. We are really young at pitcher, but we expect them to continue to grow.”
Jade Burton, a freshman, is the probable starter behind the plate. Filling that spot is crucial to the Lady Bears’ success following the graduation of Adams, the team’s top hitter last season and one of the region’s best players.
“Jade is one of those kids who can play anywhere,” Burton said. “Catcher is a big position because we lost a great player there in Adams. She has a great catcher, and we’ve been looking to fit that spot. Filling that position concerns me the most at this point. That is a vital part of our team.”
Abbigail Fields, a freshman who was a middle school standout the past several years, is expected to provide some pop in the HCHS order at first base.
“Softball is in her blood, and she has a good presence at first,” Burton said. “Abbi brings so much strength to her lineup. I also love her ability to lead. She is very vocal and she has fit right in. We are very pleased with having her here.”
Shepherd, an eighth-grader from Cumberland, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the preseason and will see action at first base, in the outfield and on the mound.
“She is one to watch. By the end of the year, people are going to know who Halanah Shepherd is,” Burton said.
Jenna Wilson, a sophomore, is expected to take over at second base with Madison Blair, last year’s starter, moving to pitcher. Blair will also see action at second.
“Jenna has really started to focus on softball and has put a lot of work in. She plays off pure instinct. There is no delayed reaction,” Burton said. “Maddy has also improved quite a bit. She fields the ball very well at second and does everything mechanically very well.”
Hailey Austin, a junior, returns at shortstop following a breakout season in basketball.
“We were happy to get Hailey back from basketball,” Burton said. “I can honestly say she has impressed me with her fielding and is not afraid of anything hit her way. She is very hard-nosed and is a good leader. She is also very vocal.”
Brittleigh Estep, a sophomore, shifts across the diamond from first base to third base.
“Bebe has good mobility and that may have been hidden a little at first base. We have to think about what is best for Bebe as a player. She has truly shined at third base,” Burton said. “I think she has been under the radar a little bit. She has God-given talent.”
“She does everything right,” Burton said. “You don’t see many kids who are as sound fundamentally as Lesleigh.”
Rylie Maggard, a sophomore, will take over in center field following the graduation of Lewis.
“I don’t think anyone works any harder than Rylie. Her ability to see the ball off the bat is amazing. She covers so much ground,” Burton said. “She has also been hitting the ball very well. We made a minor change and she has improved quite a bit.”
Honesty Thomas, the only senior on the squad, will take over full-time in right field after splitting time last year at designated hitter and the outfield.
“Honesty came in with an incredible attitude to do whatever it takes for her team,” Burton said. “She is very encouraging and very uplifting to the girls. She has been a leader since the first day.”
There are several candidates in left, including Wilson and sophomore Lesleigh Brown, who will also see action at first base and third base.
“Lesleigh Brown has put a lot of work in during the offseason,” Burton said. “She is fundamentally sound and one of our most consistent hitters.”
Middlesboro ended Harlan County’s four-year run as district champs last spring and is the favorite to repeat with several top players returning.
“HC graduated so many girls. We have a lot of youth, but that is not an excuse,” Burton said. “We see this year as a learning year, but we have high expectations because they have the ability. We just have to put the pieces together. Everything we need, we’ve got.
“Middlesboro is a very solid team, but we feel if we keep working and improving we can go head-to-head with them before the season ends.”

Honesty Thomas is the only senior this season for the Harlan County Lady Bears and is expected to play a key role in the lineup as the right fielder. (Kim Henson)