The Harlan County Black Bears (31-3) entered the 2016-17 season with lofty expectations placed squarely on their shoulders. They were the favorite to win the 13th Region in 2016-17. This was completely understandable, they were coming off of a 24-5 season and there were no departing seniors on the roster. Head coach Michael Jones had the perfect blend of battle-tested kids that were young, used to winning, yet still hungry for more after being bounced by Clay County last year in the 13th Region semifinals.
They weren’t fazed at all by the expectations as they vaulted out the gates and reeled off 17 straight victories to start the season. As the Harlan Daily Enterprise’s John Henson points out, the more wins the piled up the more they seemed to slide in the rankings for some inexplicable reason. This could be categorized as one of those things that they couldn’t control, so they didn’t worry about it.
They just kept on winning.
They cruised to another 52 District Championship with 18-point wins over both Middlesboro and Harlan (independent) to put themselves in position to complete last season’s unfinished 13th Region business. There was just one hurdle or proverbial elephant in the room (region, in this case). Two of the Black Bears’ three losses this season had come at the hands of the Corbin Redhounds. They were decisive losses too.
Corbin won 72-54 on their home court on Jan. 14 and then traveled to Harlan County and waked away with a 73-61 victory on Feb. 7. The Redhounds have been good for years. Their head coach, Tony Pietrowski, was a baller in my day back in the mid 1990’s, Cory Sears was a member of two of Tubby Smith’s teams at UK. They were good a generation before that as well.
It was only fitting that the Black Bears would have to face Corbin with a Sweet Sixteen trip on the line in The Corbin Arena, a virtual home game for the Redhounds.
HIGHLIGHTS: No. 5 Corbin vs. No. 7 Harlan County (Boys 13th Region Championship) https://t.co/Z3mqUGvcSk
— WYMT SportsOT (@SportsOT) March 7, 2017
The Black Bears were able to get out to an early lead and weather multiple Corbin rallies. Treyce Spurlock got off to a fast start. Cameron Carmical was steady as usual and got help from Andrew Creech, Tyrese Simmons and company. They killed two birds with one stone: they finished the job in the region and settled their score against Corbin when the stakes were the highest. Now they are headed to Rupp Arena to face the 10th Region champion (Campbell County – Scott winner) at 6:30 PM on March 15.
The jubilation that a win like this sends through the community is unreal. It doesn’t matter if you still live at home in Harlan County or if you’ve moved somewhere else within the state, or even out-of-state. The happiness doesn’t change. The last time this feeling occurred for me was prior to the 2008 consolidation of schools that formed Harlan County High School as we know it. It was five years prior to this in 2003 when the Cumberland Redskins represented the 13th Region in Rupp Arena.
Head coach Bill Scott had an up and down roller coaster of a regular season that resulted in an 11-13 record. The Redskins got hot at the right time and rode a five-game winning streak through the district and region tournaments that capped off an improbable run to Rupp before they fell to Daviess County in their opening game.
Even though this year’s Harlan County had Sweet Sixteen expectations, the joy and excitement of 2003 and 2017 is still the same for me.
@CameronC4_ Congratulations to you young fella, and to all your teammates whose Twitter handles I don't know. Keep grindin'!
— Vinny Hardy (@VinnyHardy) March 7, 2017
I’m sure I speak for all of the Black Bears fans, and they appear to be poised to stay in Lexington for more than one evening.
I also want to take a moment and congratulate the Harlan County Black Bears girls basketball team. They were in the 13th Region Championship game too where they fell to Harlan 59-52. Just as Corbin was unable to beat Harlan County for a third time, Harlan County was unable to beat Harlan for a fourth time. Congratulations to Lady Green Dragons coach Derrick Akal (former Cumberland Redskin) and his team on their win.
It has been quite a season in Harlan County for high school hoops.