Freyer hopes to restore Green Dragons’ winning tradition


Megan Freyer

Team members include, from left, front row: Kirk Brown, Jayden Ward, Gunnar Snelling, Andrew Roark, Dawson Irvin, Matthew Nunez, Aiden Johnson and Donovan Montanaro; back row: coach Terry Jones, coach Wyatt Howard, Noah Lewis, Cameren Maples, John Mark Bryson, Will Austin, Jared Moore, Kevin Thomas Lee, Jae’dyn Gist, Evan Browning, coach Tyler Cornett and coach Lee Freyer

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Determined to end a four-year streak of losing seasons, the Harlan Green Dragons are going to work under first-year coach Lee Freyer, a 1999 Harlan graduate who would like to return the Dragons to their winning ways of the 1990s when they won a 13th Region title and finished second in consecutive years.
“They are willing to learn and they are hard workers,” Freyer said. “They come out every day and put in the extra work to get better. We lost seven seniors from last year but those seniors laid a lot of groundwork as far as the culture here, and I can see the culture changing.
“I’m really excited about this year. I’m humbled and blessed they considered me for this job when coach (Cory) Estep resigned. He left a lot of good baseball habits and practice habits, and I’m grateful for that.”
Putting the ball in play has been one focus for the Dragons in the preseason as they work on reducing strikeout issues from a year ago when they finished 11-20.
“We’re hitting the ball pretty well. We had less strikeouts in our intra-squad scrimmage the other day, and that was a problem for us last year. That will be a key for us. We have a tendency to strike out too much, we’ve worked on improving our two-strike approach. You have to have a plan when you step in the box.”
Pitching will have to carry the Green Dragons early in the season with several new starters in the lineup. Jared Moore and Evan Browning teamed for 10 of Harlan’s 11 wins last year as Moore finished 6-4 with a 3.13 earned run average and Browning was 4-4 with a 3.00 earned run average.
“We have the two guys coming back who threw the most innings for us last year. That makes a first-year head coach pretty excited to know you have two guys who have been under fire a lot and know what to expect in district play and district tournament play,” Freyer said.
“Browning is crafty and knows his way around hitters. He can almost take over a game on the mound. He is a very accurate pitcher and has developed an off-speed pitch with more bite. Jared pitched quite a bit last year, and he’s a freshman again, so we have him four more years. He has a strong arm with accuracy.”
Others expected to see action on the mound include Dawson Irvin, Donovan Montanaro, John Mark Bryson and Jaedyn Gist.
“I go back to an old (former Harlan coach) Murph Howard quote. The team that catches and throws the ball the best win the majority of your games,” Freyer said. “I feel good with those two on the mound. They hit their spots and that makes a difference in pitching.”
Moore, a freshman who hit .329 last season, is competing at first base with senior Andrew Roark.
“We have a position battle there now,” Freyer said. “We want to see them in a scrimmage to try to determine who is ahead. It’s pretty even right now. Roark is experienced as a senior and has a good glove. Jared is a little taller and gives you a big target. They are both learning a new position.”
Montanaro and Aiden Johnson are competing at second base. Montanaro hit .264 last season and stole nine bases.
“Donovan has good speed and good hands. His confidence with the bat has increased. He’s added a little more pop to his bat. We are always looking for five-tool guys and he’s starting to fit into that mold,” Freyer said. “Aiden is real consistent and gives good effort every day. He’s pretty solid there.”
Browning, a senior who ranked third on the team last year with a .357 average and had 38 steals in 40 attempts, returns to anchor the infield at shortstop.
“Evan is one of the engines on the team. He gets everyone going,” Freyer said. “You know what you will get from Evan day in and day out. He’s a good leader who holds people accountable. He wants to succeed and willing to do extra work when needed.”
Irvin, a junior who transferred from Seymour, Tenn., is the early favorite at third. Roark and Moore could also play third.
“Irvin has good footwork and instincts and a really strong arm. He can make a lot of plays at third. I’m excited to see how he does,” Freyer said.
Noah Lewis, a senior who recorded 12 hits and nine RBI last season, provides a steadying influence at catcher.
“Noah has improved a lot. We’re still working on some footwork, but he is really intelligent and knows the game. His dad is a coach, so he’s been around it forever,” Freyer said. “He gives you a consistent effort behind the plate.”
Jaedyn Gist, a junior who was second on the team last year with a .365 average, is back in center field.
“His speed is hard to keep out of the outfield. He can shut one side of the field down when he’s out there,” Freyer said. “He’s a fantastic athlete. The more he plays the better he seemed to get.”
Bryson moves from third to left field after hitting .284 last season.
“John Mark has good speed and a high baseball IQ,” Freyer said. “He can play several positions.”
Jayden Ward, a first-year junior who stars in football, is the early favorite to take over in right field. Johnson will also see action at the position.
“Jayden has a lot of speed. He is already pretty good defensively because some of the things he did in football can transfer over to baseball,” Freyer said. “That’s another position that will probably be determined by who is swinging the bat the best.”
The Dragons appeared to be on the verge of making their first regional tournament appearance since 2015 last May as they led Harlan County most of the way until the Bears rallied in the final inning to win. Middlesboro edged Harlan County 11-10 in the finals.
“I think any team that’s in the district could win it this year,” Freyer said. “I don’t know if there is a clear-cut favorite. That’s the best thing about it. Any team could beat any other team on a given day. Once we get over that hump, the sky is the limit for this bunch. If we can get our mind right before we step on this diamond, I think we can play with anybody.”