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Look for another Laurel showdown in 2021 girls race

Just as predicted in this space a year earlier, South Laurel knocked off North Laurel in an all-Laurel County showdown for the 13th Region Tournament title, ending a string of four straight losses in the regional semifinals for the talented Lady Cardinals, who won their first game in the Sweet Sixteen before concerns about the spread of the coronavirus led to the tournament being suspended.

Expect the Laurel schools to dominate for a second straight year in 2021, but this time I give the edge to North as the Lady Jaguars lose two starters compared to three for South Laurel. It would be a major upset if any other 13th Region teams contend as the gap remains between the top two and the rest of the field.

The following is my annual look back at the best of the previous year and a look ahead to what you can expect next season.

Enterprise All Region

First team

G — Ally Collett, South Laurel

G — Amerah Steele, South Laurel

G — Hailee Valentine, North Laurel

F — Halee Collins, North Laurel

F — Abby Harris, Bell County

Second team

G — Gracie Jervis, North Laurel

G — Kaylee Mathis, Clay County

G — Sydnie Hall, South Laurel

G — Whitney Caldwell, Pineville

F — Morgan Blakley, Harlan County

Third team

G — Lillie Hall, Williamsburg

G — Emily Sizemore, North Laurel

G — Shelby Stewart, Corbin

F — Natalee King, Harlan

F — Taya Davis, Jackson County

Fourth team

G — Taylor Asher, Clay County

G — Isabel Gray, North Laurel

G — Presley Partin, Knox Central

F — Talyah McQueen, Bell County

C — Raigan King, Pineville

Best juniors

Whitney Caldwell, Pineivlle

Shelby Stewart, Corbin

Presley Partin, Knox Central

Taylor Asher, Clay County

Raigan King, Pineville

Best sophomores

Hailee Valentine, North Laurel

Emily Sizemore, North Laurel

Ashtyn Myers, Bell County

Caylan Mills, Knox Central

Alyssa Gibson, Red Bird

Best freshmen

Taliyah McQueen, Bell County

Kenady Ward, Jackson County

Gracie Turner, South Laurel

Clara Collins, South Laurel

Emily Cox, South Laurel

^^^

Predictions for 2020-2021 (grades are listed by next year’s class for each player mentioned)

1. North Laurel (25-5) — The odds are good that the Lady Jaguars will make a third straight trip to the regional finals, even with standout guards Gracie Jervis and Isabel Gray graduating. Junior guards Emily Sizemore (10.3 points per game last season, 3.9 rebounds per game last season) and Hailee Valentine (15.7, 3.5) and eighth-grade phenom Halle Collins (14.4, 6.8) will lead North’s talented lineup next season. Eighth-graders Saige McClure and Bella Sizemore (2.2) are part of the next wave of future stars who will also be in the mix to round out the lineup.

2. South Laurel (27-6) — No one loses more talent than the Lady Cardinals with a star-studded backcourt of Ally Collett, Amerah Steele and Syndie Hall moving on to college, but South won’t struggle anytime soon with a deep and talented roster built by coach Chris Souder. Senior guard Brianna Howard (7.9, 2.7) returns, along with 6-0 junior center Rachel Presley (12.0, 7.6). Sophomores Clara Collins (7.2, 3.6) at 5-11, and Reagan Jones, at 5-10, could also move into the lineup, along with junior guard Lindsay Cox and sophomores Emily Cox (3.6, 4.2), Gracie Turner (2.2, 3.1) and Emily Mills.

3. Bell County (25-5) — After a four-year break between district titles, the Lady Cats returned to the top of the 52nd last season and remain the favorite even with star guard Abby Harris graduating. Junior guard Ashtyn Meyers (9.5, 2.1), senior guard Abigail Cornett (6.8, 3.5), 5-9 sophomore center Talyah McQueen (13.7, 10.0) and 5-7 senior forward Sara Kidwell (3.6, 4.4) are retuning starters with sixth man Nadine Johnson (4.6, 2.1) likely moving into the lineup.

4. Whitley County (15-18) — After an up-and-down season a year ago, the Lady Colonels could be ready to rejoin the region’s elite teams in 2021 with four starters coming back, led by sophomore guard Kallie Housley (10.6, 3.3) and senior guard Reis Anderson (8.1, 3.0). Mikayla Wilder (5.9, 4.0), a 6-0 center, and Darcie Anderson (4.5, 2.3), a 5-9 wing, also return after starting as eighth-graders. Seniors Natalie Moses (5.7) and Jaycie Monhollen (6.5, 2.1) will also be back.

5. Clay County (18-14) — Kaylee Mathis is gone after breaking the all-time school scoring record, but the Lady Tigers bring back their other starters, including senior point guard Taylor Asher (10.7) and 6-0 senior center Alexis Lewis (8.9, 4.4). Junior guard Courtney Jones (3.3, 3.5) and senior guard Allie Rose Phillips are also back. Sophomore guard Jaylen Combs (3.9) and senior guard Hailey Napier (2.4, 2.6) will also compete for a starting job, along with junior guard Madison Jones.

6. Pineville (17-11) — With four starters back for their senior seasons, the Lady Lions are the early favorite in the 13th Region All “A” Classic and should compete for a second straight 51st District title. Whitney Caldwell (17.2, 5.1) and 6-0 center Raigan King (14.9, 6.1) give the Lady Lions a dangerous perimeter-post tandem. Summer Partin (6.2, 5.3) and Virginia Hall (5.3, 2.6) also return for their senior seasons. Sophomores Halle Jones and McKenzie Widner and eighth-grader Ava Arnett will compete for the final starting job.

7. Knox Central (11-17) — The Lady Panthers had trouble in close games a year ago and fell below expectations but should bounce back this year with a veteran squad returning, led by senior guard Presley Partin (18.2, 6.3) and junior guard Caylan Mills (13.2, 5.7). Junior guards Zoey Liford (11.8, 3.2) and Katie Broughton, freshman guard Timberly Frederick (8.1) and 5-11 freshman center Natalie Fisher (3.0, 5.9) are other key players returning.

8. Corbin (17-13) — The Lady Hounds’ record improved for a third straight year, but a loss to Whitley County kept Corbin out of the regional tournament. Senior guard Shelby Stewart (17.7, 6.7) and sophomore guard Bailey Stewart (7.5, 4.3) are returning starters in a lineup that could also include senior guard Kami Garland and junior guard Kaila Stidham.

9. Harlan County (16-12) — After four straight trips to the regional finals, the Lady Bears suffered a first-round regional loss for the first time in school history and will continue rebuilding next season with three players graduating, including district player of the year Morgan Blakley. Kelly Beth Hoskins (8.5, 3.7) is back for her senior season, along with 5-9 forward Kassy Owens (6.2, 7.1) and guard Jacey Lewis (3.9). Junior guard Jaylin Smith (7.4, 3.6) is also a returning starter, and junior Jaylin Preston (3.2) came on strong late last year as a top reserve. Several young players could also contribute next year, led by eighth-graders Kylie Noe (3.0, 2.6) and Kylie Jones and sophomores Taylor Lunsford, Hailey Austin and Taytum Griffin.

10. Harlan (11-18) — Losing standout forward Natalee King will be a blow, but a young Lady Dragons’ squad should continue to improve with everyone else returning, led by freshman guard Ella Karst (12.4, 3.6) and 5-9 freshman forward Aymanni Wynn (5.2, 6.1). Seniors Angel Wynn (7.6, 2.6) and Alli Thompson (2.7, 4.1) are returning starters, as well. Sophomore guard Emma Owens (4.3) and senior forward Kaylee Leslie are also in the mix for a starting job.

10. Williamsburg (16-11) — The defending All “A” Classic regional champs lose two starters and two key reserves but will remain an All “A” regional contender with senior guards Mikkah Siler (14.1, 8.0) and Gracie Lawson (5.0) and junior guard Kaylee Graham (4.1) returning. Seniors Morgan Prewitt (2.1) and Hailey Brown (2.0) could also play key roles.

Best of the rest:

12. Jackson County (22-9) — A one-point loss to Clay County in the district tournament kept the Lady Generals from a trip to the regional tournament. Getting there next year won’t be easy with North Laurel and Clay County bringing back quite a few players while Jackson loses three starters. Junior point guard Eden Lakes (8.1, 2.8) and 6-4 junior center Kenady Ward (7.6, 7.6) return, along with junior guard Natalie Carl (6.3), last year’s sixth man.

13. Middlesboro (5-23) — Graduation losses, transfers and injuries led to a rough season for the Lady Jackets, who have lost nine straight first-round games in the 52nd District Tournament. Kailey Owens (14.2, 7.7), a 5-10 junior, returns at center for next year’s squad. Senior guards Grace Gent (8.7, 4.7) and Kirsten Keith (3.8, 2.4) are also back, along with freshman guard Emrey Glover (8.2. 2.6) and eighth-grade guard Keevi Betts (2.5, 2.4)

14. Red Bird (10-20) — The Lady Cardinals more than doubled their win total from the previous as one of the region’s most improved teams and should continue to get better with everyone returning, led by junior guard Alyssa Gibson (21.3, 7.1). Senior forward Taylor Caldwell (3.8, 4.1) also returns, along with junior guards Lexi Bowling (9.2, 7.5) and Halee Jackson (3.6, 4.2) and freshman guard Emily Roark (5.7, 2.3). Junior guard Liberty Taylor (5.7) also returns.

15. Barbourville (9-17) — Losing three starters will make it difficult for the Lady Tigers to continue the progress from last season, but coach Andrea Hillard will rebuild around 5-11 junior forward Brianna Gallagher (14.4, 9.0) and 5-10 junior center Laura Smith (9.2. 9.8). Junior forward Aimee Woolum (5.3, 6.0) and freshmen guards Tessa Hillard and Aubrey Woolum could also move into key roles.

16. Lynn Camp (4-26) — After losing just about everything from their regional final four team a year earlier, the Lady Cats struggled as expected in 2020. Four starters return next season, led by sophomore guards Abby Made (6.0, 3.6) and Alissa Crumpler (5.0, 4.6). Senior Alexis Lewis (2.1, 3.7) and freshman Alyssa Alyssa Mounce also return.

17. Oneida Baptist (6-25) — The Lady Mountaineers lose their two leading scorers but bring back 6-0 junior center Kambria Howard (3.6, 4.2), junior guard Samira Dennis (8.2, 7.0) and sophomore guard Maira Morgan (2.1).