Bobcats hoping to build on momentum


Jacob Smith delivered a pitch in action last season. Smith is expected to play shortstop and pitch for the Bobcats this season.

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)

After 10 straight first-round exits in the 52nd District Tournament, the Bell County Bobcats knocked off Harlan County last spring and made it to the 13th Region Tournament for the first since since 2009. First-year coach Clay Carroll, a 2003 Bell County graduate who served as an assistant from 2013 to 2015, says his job is to make sure the Bobcats continue to improve, even with eight players graduating from a 7-18 team.
“I think coach (Scott) Chaney had them headed in the right direction,” Carroll said. “I feel they learned how to compete last year, That is a major part of success.”
Alex Mays, a senior who led the team last year with a .352 average and 25 hits, is back at third base.
“He led the team in hitting last year and is a solid third baseman,” Carroll said. “
Jason Jones, a senior who starred for the Bobcats in football and will play, is the probable starter at shortstop.
“He didn’t play last year, but we got him to come out and he’s a major addition,” Carroll said. “He can hit the ball, field and run. He’s also a good pitcher.”
Jacob Smith, a senior who hit .306 last season with a team-high 10 stolen bases, will also play shortstop. Smith has signed with Asbury and is extremely valuable because of his versatility.
“He was primarily a catcher before, but he has played everywhere but first base,” Carroll said. “He’s a great leader who plays hard every day. I’d like to have nine just like him.”
J.M. Baker, a senior who played in the outfield last season, will share time at first base with freshman Austin Robbins. Baker hit .315 last season with a team-high 14 walks.
“J.M. led in on-base percentage last season. He also has good strength and he’s a line-drive hitter. He will be our only left-handed hitter in the lineup,” Carroll said. “Austin is a good defender with a good baseball IQ. He still needs to improve on the offensive side.”
Will Dean, a senior hasn’t played since middle school, is the early favorite to take over at second base.
“He’s come a long way already,” Carroll said. “He’s picking up on everything pretty quick. We have more confidence in him than he has himself.”
Carroll will likely turn to eighth-grader Daniel Thomas at catcher.
“He will give you everything he’s got on every play,” Carroll said. “He’s so wide open. Sometimes we have to slow him down a little and get him at a baseball pace. He’s also very aggressive on the bases.”
Hayden Clark, a junior who hit .281 last spring and led the team with 16 runs scored, will return to center and serve as the Bobcats’ leadoff hitter.
“He’s a contact hitter with very good speed,” Carroll said. “He’s athletic and usually found a way to score last season when he got on base. I think he could start in center for anybody in the region.”
Hunter Clark, a senior who hit .261, plays right field.
“He’s a contact hitter who makes all the routine plays,” Carroll said. “He’s a solid player who is very consistent.”
Chandler Mink, a junior, and Cole Hoskins, a sophomore, are the candidates to take over in left field.
“Chandler is an athlete who makes good contact and battles at the plate,” Carroll said. “Cole is a very good outfielder who has moved from catcher. He is a good utility player.”
The Bobcats lost their top pitcher from a year ago in D.J. Estes, who led the team in wins with three and in innings pitched with 40. Smith, Mays, Jones, Hayden Clark, Hoskins and Dean are among those expected to see action on the mound this season.
“We’ll change our pitching style this year. Location is the key,” Carroll said. “They tend to overthrow. We have a pretty good defense, so we want people to put it in play.”
Bell County won the 13th Region in 2008 and lost in the finals in 2009 but hadn’t been a factor since. Carroll said last year’s success was something this year’s squad can build on if the season does resume following the delay to the coronavirus outbreak.
“They got over the hump last year. They beat Harlan County twice last year, and I don’t know the last time they did that, if ever,” Carroll said. “If you stay tight and play fundamental baseball you can compete. You also have to have fun to succeed in baseball because it’s not an easy game to play. I think we’re doing a good job of that so far.”