2019 Sports in Review

Published 12:54 pm Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 was a wild year for sports in Bell County. Everything from a state runners-up in football with the Bell County Bobcats, to the Middlesboro girls basketball team winning the All “A” tournament early in the year. These are the top-five sports moments for Bell County in 2019.

Honorable mention: Middlesboro baseball wins 52nd district tournament.

Middlesboro finished their regular season with a record of 16-10, including an undefeated district record of 8-0 and a 13-5 mark in regional play. Middlesboro won the 52nd District Tournament with a 10-0 victory over the Bell County Bobcats after defeating the Harlan Green Dragons 12-7 in the semifinals to advance to the regional tournament.

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No. 5 — Braxton Caldwell competes in state golf tournament.

After winning the regional tournament and advancing to the state tournament, Pineville High School golfer Braxton Caldwell took home a 26th-place finish after finishing 10 over par in the Kentucky state golf tournament, held in October.

Throughout his career, Caldwell was named twice to the All-A regional team, two time all-conference and two time all-region.

In the first round, Caldwell started strong with three straight pars before a bogey on the fourth hole. He managed another par on hole five before sinking his second bogey of the first round on the sixth. After getting back on track with two pars on seven and eight, he had another bogey on the final hole of the front nine, bringing him to +3.

Caldwell was cruising on the back nine with three straight pars before a costly double-bogey set him back to +5 through 13 holes. On the ensuing hole, Caldwell’s fortune continued to decline with another bogey. Two more bogeys on 16 and 17 forced Caldwell into a +6 by the end of the first round.

Off to a rough start in the second round with a bogey on the first hole, Caldwell sunk two more pars on holes two and three before another bogey on four. After another par on hole five, Caldwell sunk his first birdie of the tournament on hole six, bringing him to +1 for the second round after six holes.

After the birdie, he had three straight bogies on seven, eight and nine. Moving to the back nine, Caldwell began with four straight pars on holes 10, 11, 12 and 13. He sunk his second birdie of the day on hole 14. He finished the back nine with three more pars and a bogey on the final hole, finishing +10 through the tournament and securing a 26th place finish.

No. 4 — Middlesboro Lady Jackets win All “A” basketball tournament

After defeating Pineville in a 51-50 thriller in the 13th Region All “A” Classic tournament semifinals, the Middlesboro Lady Jackets rode their wave of momentum to their fourth-straight victory by defeating the Williamsburg Lady Jackets, 44-38, to win the All “A” championship in January.

Middlesboro had five players in the scoring column in the first quarter of the game to lead a very balanced scoring attack. Baylee Woody and Kailey Owens led the way early on with three points each in the first period. Brittany Davis, Grace Gent and Kirsten Keith added two each, to contribute to the Middlesboro scoring effort.

The Middlesboro defense allowed only five points in the first quarter, outscoring Williamsburg 14-5. Middlesboro’s offense went stagnant in the second quarter, with their only points coming from the free-throw line. Hall scored eight of Williamsburg’s 12 points in the second quarter. Williamsburg outscored Middlesboro 12-3 in the period to knot the game at 17 points each heading into the locker room at halftime.

The Middlesboro defense played solid in the third quarter holding Williamsburg to six points, but had problems getting going on offense scoring only nine points. Heading into the final quarter, Middlesboro held a slight 26-23 edge over Williamsburg.

Both offenses played their best periods of the game in the fourth. Woody anchored the Middlesboro offense in the final period with eight of the Lady Jackets’ 18 points in the fourth. Hall led Williamsburg’s last quarter effort with six of the Lady Jackets’ 15 points.

Outscoring Williamsburg 18-15 in the final quarter, Middlesboro secured a six-point victory and the 13th Region All “A” Classic championship.

No. 3 – Bell County Lady Cats win districts in volleyball

Down 1-0 and trailing 21-14 in the second set of the 52nd District Tournament championship game, 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.

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.

No. 2 (Tied) Middlesboro vs. Pineville football game (and the pie in the face)

Myself and Regional Editor Anthony Cloud made a bet on this game. I took Pineville to win by a slim margin and he took Middlesboro by a slim margin. The loser had to take a pie in the face — I had to take a pie to the face. It will remain one of my fondest memories of 2019.

After trailing 13-0 at halftime, the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets fought their way back into the game, took the lead and escaped Bradner Stadium with a 20-19 victory over in-county rival Pineville.

Pineville took a 13-0 lead into the locker room at the half, before scoring a touchdown in their opening possession of the second half, giving the Lions a 19-0 lead after missing the PAT.

Middlesboro answered back with a 40 yard touchdown pass from Eric Helton to Ethan Barton to give the Yellow Jackets their first points of the game. After a missed PAT, Middlesboro trailed Pineville 19-6 with just over four minutes remaining in the third.

With Pineville driving down field, Barton came up with an interception for Middlesboro, granting the Yellow Jackets possession from their own 34 yard line, trailing 19-6 with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter.

After regaining possession two very hard runs from Riley Gent and a 36 yard scamper by Jabari Kyle gave the Yellow Jackets the ball inside the five yard line. On the ensuing play, Helton worked his way into the end zone on a quarterback keeper from the one yard line with five seconds remaining in the third quarter. A successful Thaisan Sin PAT brought the score to 19-13 in favor of the Lions.

After pinning Pineville deep into their own territory for most of the early fourth quarter, Middlesboro came up with an interception by Kyle.

After two big penalties, the Yellow Jackets were faced with a long 2nd & 28 from the Pineville 43 yard line before the Lions were assessed a personal foul penalty, giving Middlesboro a more manageable third down, still with 17 yards to gain the first down.

After another penalty from Pineville, Middlesboro was faced with a third down and three to go, when Helton scampered across the line to gain for a first down inside the Lions’ 10 yard line. Helton again rushed, gaining nine yards and lost his helmet and had to come out. On the ensuing play, Kyle found the end zone on a one-yard touchdown run, tying the game at 19. With another successful PAT from Sin, Middlesboro took the lead for the first time all game with just over one minute remaining.

With the Lions driving down the field, the Yellow Jacket defense came up with a big interception from Tyler Kelly, allowing them to drain the clock the rest of the way out and secure a 20-19 victory at home.

No. 2 (Tied) Larry French announced as Middlesboro football coach

In January, Middlesboro High School announced that Larry French would be taking over the football program.

“I came here because I like to be challenged,” French said, “and I’ve certainly got a challenge ahead of me. If we can get the players, the parents and the community as whole to buy in to what we’re trying to do, there’s not a doubt in my mind that we will win our fair share of ball games.”

This season, the Yellow Jackets won eight games; more than their previous five seasons combined.

French began working full-time at Middlesboro High School on Feb. 11.

“This is a great community full of great people and great athletes,” he said. “I think we can get this program back to where it needs, as long as we all buy into the process.”

Athletic Director Jesse Allen said: “A lot of people said there was no way that we were going to get coach French, but luckily for us, he likes these challenges he talks about and he’s willing to come here and build on what previous head coach (Zach) Massengill got started.”

Massengill had previously worked under French as an assistant at Lincoln and Boyle counties.

“If these players will do the things that he’s asking them to do, I’ve seen it work, the proof is there,” Massengill said. “The community has to support him and the athletes have to buy in to what he’s trying to do. If those things happen, he can build a winner, and that’s where we want to get back to.

“Everybody is very excited to have him here and he seems to be equally as excited,” Massengill said. “He likes change every once in a while. The community was ready for it; it’s been a tough few years, and I hate that. I’m very excited about the direction we are headed and if we all support him and understand that it is isn’t going to happen overnight, it will happen.”

French led Middlesboro to their first home playoff victory in nearly a decade this season.

No. 1 – Bell County finishes as Class 3A state runners-up

The clock struck midnight on Bell County’s Cinderella season as they fell short of a perfect year by one game. The Belfry Pirates defeated the Bobcats 30-20 in the KHSAA Class 3A state championship game at Kroger Field in Lexington on Dec. 5.

The Bobcats experienced something that they hadn’t experienced all season in this game. On the night, the Bobcats were outrushed 379-141. They were outgained on offense as a whole 379-291. The Pirates only threw one pass all night, which fell incomplete.

Belfry is the only team to hold a lead on the Bobcats after their initial possession all season long.

Belfry struck first with a 30-yard touchdown run from Isaac Dixon with 3:12 remaining in the first to give Belfry a 7-0 lead after a successful PAT from Grayson Cook.

Bell County answered on their ensuing possession with a 1-yard rushing touchdown from London Stephney with 10:11 remaining in the second quarter. Jason Jones missed the PAT, allowing Belfry to hold on to a 7-6 lead.

On their next drive, Belfry wasted no time hitting pay dirty again on the legs of Dixon, this time from 69-yards out with 9:14 remaining before the half to allow Belfry to extend their lead to 14-6 after a successful Cook PAT.

On their following possession, Bell County chewed up 4:46 of the game clock and answered with a 5-yard touchdown run from Hunter Bailey. After an unsuccessful 2-point conversion, Belfry maintained a 14-12 lead with 4:19 remaining before the half.

With Belfry starting the second half on offense, they wanted to extend their lead before the half. They marched down field in 3:30 and worked their way inside the 10-yard line. Dixon carried the ball down to the 1-yard line, but the Pirates were called for holding and the ball was backed up to the 20-yard line.

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to the end zone, Belfry settled for a 24-yard field goal from Cook, to extend their lead to 17-12 at the half.

As the Pirates regained offensive possession to start the second half, neither team was able to work their way into the end zone.

With 9:59 remaining in the game, Dixon scored for the Pirates on an 8-yard touchdown run, bringing the score to 23-12 after an unsuccessful PAT.

Belfry wasn’t done scoring after that. With 4:31 remaining in the game, Ben Bentley punched in the final Pirate touchdown of the night and increased their lead to 30-12 after a successful PAT from Cook.

With hope fading, Bell County would not lay over. With 2:42 remaining in the game, the Bobcats punched in their final touchdown. After an unsuccessful 2-point conversion, the final score was on the board with two minutes still remaining in the game.

Belfry ran the ball to chew up the last few precious seconds of game time as emotion began to overwhelm the Bell County sideline. As the clock struck zero, the teams met on the field. A clear respect was evident between the two teams all the way from the coaches and players to the cheerleaders and fans.

The Bobcats finished the season with a 14-1 record, including the state’s highest rated offense, second highest rated defense and as the state runner-up.

This was coach Dudley Hilton’s first loss in a state title game. Prior to this season, he held a record of 3-0 in title clinching games.