Bell ends Harlan’s run as district champs

Published 10:30 pm Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Down 1-0 and trailing 21-14 in the second set of the 52nd District Tournament championship game on Tuesday, the Bell County Lady Cats’ Cinderella story appeared to headed toward its conclusion on the court at Harlan County High School.

It soon became clear, however, that these weren’t the same Lady Cats who finished 4-22 a year ago and hadn’t posted a winning season since 2006. Bell fought back against four-time defending district champ Harlan and won a thrilling five-set match against the Lady Dragons, a senior-dominated team that hadn’t lost a district match all season.

Bell (15-12) rolled into the regional tournament with a 13-25, 25-23, 25-17, 24-26, 15-11 victory.

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“These girls fought through a lot of adversity and found mental toughness,” said first-year coach Shawn Fultz, whose only previous coaching experience was in basketball. “I’m proud of their hard work and their determination to change how people look at Bell County volleyball.”

Natalee King’s length and athleticism at the net was the story of the first set as she helped the Lady Dragons overcome an early deficit with a kill, block and ace in 7-2 run that put Harlan in control. Hannah Jones and Haven Saylor helped push the lead to seven before a nice return by Raegan Robbins stopped the run. King took over again with four straight service points for a 21-11 lead. Emma Fisher served the final five Harlan points with kills by Kailey Cornett and Jones.

Madison Ford led the Bell comeback in the second set with six straight service points to spark an 11-2 run that gave Bell the win.

Robbins, the tournament most valuable player, teamed with Ford in the third set as Bell built on its win in the previous set to dominate the third.

“Harlan is a great team. Volleyball is a game of momentum and we got some momentum and ran with it,” Fultz said.

Harlan (11-11) showed some grit of its own in the fourth set, rallying from a 19-10 deficit, even after King went out with a knee injury.

King returned briefly in the fifth set but had to return to the bench in pain. Clara Colinger had several aces in a 9-1 run to open the set. Harlan fought back to within three, at 14-11, before Bell scored the final point to end the match.

Both teams return to action in the 13th Region Tournament.


One streak continued and one ended in the opening round of the 52nd District Tournament on Monday at Harlan County High School.

The Harlan Lady Dragons will be making their fifth straight appearance in the district finals after winning their semifinal matchup against Middlesboro. The Harlan County Lady Bears will miss playing in the district finals for the first time since 2009 and only the second time in school history after falling to Bell County.

Harlan rolled into the finals with a 25-11, 25-13, 25-9 sweep of Middlesboro.

After five lead changes in the early going of the first set, Harlan’s Hannah Jones slowly took control. Jones had three kills and Madelyn Haynes added two in a 10-2 run that put the Lady Dragons in control. Haven Saylor reeled off five straight points, including two aces, to close out the set.

Natalee King dominated at the net in the second set as Harlan rallied from an early deficit. Middlesboro stayed close, trailing 15-12, before King and Haynes used their height to take control. Haynes reeled off eight straight service points late in the set before Middlesboro scored. A King kill on the next point ended the set.

Saylor was the star for Harlan in the third set, reeling off seven straight points, finishing with two aces to close out the set and the match

Harlan (11-10) will play in the finals on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Middlesboro closed the season with a record of 2-17.

Bell County will make its first appearance in the 13th Region Tournament since 2014 following a 25-13, 25-18, 25-13 win over the Lady Bears, who finished 4-17. The Lady Cats improved to 14-12 with the win and are in position for their first winning season since 2006.

Clara Bolinger and Raegan Robbins had huge games for the Lady Cats, who never trailed in any of the three sets.

Robbins and Bolinger each had aces as Bell raced to an 8-2 lead in the first set. HCHS fought back to within five at 17-12 after Olivia Minor and Serenity Whitehead had kills, but Robbins and Bolinger took over again in an 8-1 run to close the set.

Robbins and Mary Kate Smith helped Bell take a 9-4 lead in the second set. HCHS fought back again, getting as close as 18-15 behind four straight service points from Whitehead. Paighton Freeman had two straight aces as the Lady Bears trailed 22-18 before several unforced errors cost them again as Bell closed with three straight points.

Bell built a 4-0 lead in the third set and stayed in control, building an 18-6 advantage on the way to the sweep.


Harlan County closed its regular season schedule with a 25-23, 25-12, 26-24 win over Barbourville to improve to 4-16 on the season.

Minor led the Lady Bears with 48 digs, 20 assists, two aces and two kills. Dixie Ewing had 34 digs, 10 assists, two aces and nine kills. Breanna Early added 29 digs, five assists and one ace. Whitehead had 27 digs, two aces, four blocks and six kills. Freeman added 25 digs, two aces and three kills. Lindsey Browning had 17 digs and one ace. Carlee Stevens added four digs, two kills, one ace and one block.


Harlan closed the regular season with a 10-10 record by falling 25-11, 25-10, 27-25 against Knox Central on Thursday.

Saylor led the Lady Dragons with 20 digs and two blocks. Emma Fisher had seven digs and two kills. King added three aces, nine kills and two blocks. Jones added three aces, nine kills and two blocks. Emma Owens added three digs. Haynes had three kills and once ace. Lauren Nunez had two digs.