Bailey likes energy, effort from Black Bears as they seek turnaround


John Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Daven Johnson, Landon McLain, Jace Capps, Shawn Carroll, and Caleb Haynes; middle row: Samuel Henson, Jaydon Sutton, Colby Johnson, Liam Garland, Aiden Craig, Josh Duckworth, Isaac Kelly and Tucker Ball; back row: Carter Howard, Nate Shepherd, Alex Creech, Jonah Swanner, Karsten Dixon, Braydon Burton, Brayden Blakley, Tristan Cooper, Will Cassim, Kaden Boggs and coach Scotty Bailey.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Ending a string of five straight losing seasons for what was once one of the 13th Region’s top baseball programs is the task for first-year coach Scotty Bailey as he prepares for the season’s first game on Tuesday.
In order to accomplish that goal, Bailey first knew he had to change attitudes and infuse the program with energy. The Black Bears immediately went to work when Bailey, a former baseball/football standout at HCHS, was named the coach, and he has been impressed by the work ethic and attitude he’s seen to this point.
“The energy has been great and the boys are playing hard for each other,” Bailey said. “They are excited to play baseball and that’s what we talked about when I came in. If you aren’t into the game, you aren’t going to win many games. We’ve had some of the older guys step up and become leaders.”
Pitching should be a strength for the Black Bears with their top three starters returning in juniors Brayden Blakley and Karsten Dixon and sophomore Tristan Cooper.
“We could have three or four guys who can compete against anybody,” Bailey said. “If we do the fundamentals things right, I think we’ll be pretty good as a team with that kind of pitching.”
Blakley, a starter since the eighth grade, led the team in wins last year with a 5-4 record, including a 2-1 victory over Knox Central and a district sweep of Middlesboro, Harlan and Bell County.
“I held him off a little early, but he threw well the other night in our scrimmage,” Bailey said. “He was hitting his spots and throwing all his pitches well.”
Cooper posted a 3-5 record and recorded the most dominating performance of the season in an 18-strikeout, one-hitter at Harlan.
“When he’s on the mound, I feel we can beat anybody,” Bailey said. “I saw him at that game against Harlan and I was impressed. He has good control, throws it pretty hard and hits his spots.”
Dixon posted a 2-3 record and likely had the best command on the staff a year ago. He focused on improving his strength and velocity in the off-season.
“Karsten has really worked hard this offseason. He’s throwing it harder this year,” Bailey said.
Colby Johnson, a sophomore, will also see action on the mound, along with Nate Shepherd, Shawn Carroll, Braydon Burton and Will Cassim.
Bailey likes the Bears’ potential at the top of the order with Shepherd and sophomore Jonah Swanner providing speed and base-running ability. Shepherd will move from center field to third base and Swanner shifts from right field to take over in center.
“Jonah is one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. He has had a great attitude about baseball and is having fun. He can make things happen. He reads the ball real well in the outfield and is one of the best we’ve had there,” Bailey said. “Nate has done a great job of making the transition to third base. He has a good stick and can help us a lot in the two spot.”
Isaac Kelly, back for his second sophomore season, returns at catcher and is also one of the team’s top hitters.
“He’s working hard on his defense and is more accurate this year and has improved his pop time,” Bailey said. “He is one of our best hitters. He makes good contact.”
Several of the Bears’ top power hitters will share time at first base, led by Cooper and Will Cassim, both sophomores who played key roles last season. Dixon will also see action at first base, along with freshman Liam Garland.
“Tristan is long and lanky and reminds me of (former HCHS standout) Connor Leisge at first,” Bailey said. “We want to find Will a spot in the lineup. He plays well at first and is a good hitter. Karsten has worked hard at first and is improving. Liam made a great play in one of our scrimmages. They are competing and we have a bunch we can rotate there.”
Blakley is back for his third season at shortstop and has made improvements as he recovers from shoulder problems. Swanner and Jaydon Sutton could also see action at shortstop.
“Blakley has improved and gained more confidence. He isn’t double-pumping as much and is diving after some balls. He has a lot of experience and we need him to lead the infield,” Bailey said. “He’s making the throws and seems to be more comfortable and confident. That’s big at that position.”
Candidates at second base include Alex Creech and Daven Johnson. Carroll will see action at third base.
“They are competing pretty tough right now,” Bailey said. “Daven is really quick and can play the deep hole between first and second pretty well and his arm is pretty strong. Alex is smart and his arm is also improving. The big difference for me at a lot of these positions is who can produce at the plate.”
Bailey has several options in the corner outfield slots, including Samuel Henson, Carter Howard and Johnson in left and Burton in right.
“Samuel was injured on the first day of practice, but he has worked his butt off since we started in October. He has hit the ball real well,” Bailey said. “Carter has hit the ball really well. He hit a double and single in our first scrimmage. Braydon has a good arm in right and has hit it well.”
Middlesboro edged Harlan County 11-10 in last year’s 52nd District finals after HCHS edged Harlan 5-4 in the first round. Another competitive race is expected this season, and Bailey says the Bears’ season could come down to whether they continue to work hard and keep a positive attitude.
“We’ve been preaching the fundamentals. I think we can compete with anyone as far as pitching. If we take the fundamentals into our hitting and defense and into the dugout, I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “We have to do the small things right. The wins will come if you do the fundamentals right. We talk about quotes and I’ve told them if we can put ‘we’ before ‘me’ we’ll be successful.”

Nate Shepherd makes the move from center field to third base this season for Harlan County. (Tanner Hoskins)