Jackets extend district title streak to six with win over Bears


Jamie Vaught

Tyler Harris pitched a five-hitter and also added a two-run triple to lead Middlesboro to a 6-1 win Wednesday over Harlan County in the 52nd District Tournament finals.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

When John Smith was a star player under Bill Powell at Middlesboro, the Jackets made a habit of winning 51st District championships. Now that he’s the Middlesboro coach, the Jackets have put together a string of 52nd District championships that reached six on Wednesday at Harlan with a 6-1 victory over Harlan County.
“We talked about that after the game,” said Smith. “It’s pretty impressive. We’ve had some good talent. The credit goes to the boys. We just pull some chains here and there.”
With a starting lineup that features seven seniors, including ace hurler Tyler Harris, the Jackets were 5-1 against district opponents in the regular season. The Jackets rolled past Bell County in the first round on Monday, then avenged their only district loss against the Black Bears. Harris was overpowering as usual as he struck out 13 and walked none while scattering five hits.
“He’s been our workhorse all year. He’s got every tough game,” Smith said. “He’s been solid for us since he’s been a freshman and I didn’t want anybody else on the hill in this game.”
“We had a few good hits against him, but he throws hard and kept us off-balance overall,” Harlan County coach Scotty Bailey said. “We weren’t able to put enough hits together.”
Colby Johnson matched Harris through four innings before walking the leadoff hitter in the fifth inning. The sophomore right-hander allowed two runs on two hits with three strikeouts and four walks in four-plus innings.
“I thought the kid kept us off-balance early on and did a good job,” Smith said. “I thought he got squeezed a little bit and that helped us out, then his pitch count got up a little bit and ran him out of the game. They brought somebody in we’d seen before and we were able to string some hits together. We did a good job on the bases and pulled it out.”
“Colby threw a good game. He just kind of ran out of gas toward the end,” Bailey said. “I was real proud of him.”
Brayden Blakley gave up four runs on three hits in one inning, striking out one and walking two. Karsten Dixon pitched one shutout inning while allowing one hit and one walk.
Harris also led the Middlesboro offense with a triple, earning tournament most valuable player honors. Warren  Vaught had a double. Connor Mason, Lane Bayless, Conner Winterberger and Youssif Nabat added one single each for the 17-10 Jackets.
Samuel Henson led the 10-19 Bears with a triple. Blakley had a double. Nathan Shepherd, Tristan Cooper and Alex Creech added singles.
Cooper and Creech had back-to-back singles in the third inning, then Cooper scored on a wild pitch to give the Bears a 1-0 lead.
Middlesboro loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth before Eric Helton tied the game with a sacrifice fly.
Harris put the Jackets ahead with a two-run triple in the fifth inning. Harris scored on a wild pitch for a 4-1 lead. Helton walked and scored the last run on Vaught’s double into right field.
After a slow start, the Bears closed the season strong and will make their 12th appearance in the regional tournament out of 13 seasons. The Bears have finished as district runner-up in six of the past seven seasons after winning three of four district titles from 2011 to 2014.
“That’s the next step for us, winning a district again,” said Bailey, who played on the last HCHS district championship team as a senior. “Our boys battled all year and improved quite a bit. We threw a lot at them with our coaching staff and they soaked it in. I’m proud of where we are right now.”
Both teams will play in the 13th Region Tournament next week. The four district winners will host first-round games with the semifinals and finals to be played at South Laurel High School.
Harlan County 001 000 0 — 1. 5. 2
Middlesboro 000 150 x — 6. 6. 2
Johnson, Blakley (5), Dixon (6) and Kelly; Harris and Hale. WP — Harris. LP — Johnson (1-5).