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The Harlan County Black Bears have been in this position before — picked as pre-season favorite, but in the past, coming up short in the 13th Region Tournament. After four straight first round losses, Harlan County looks to be the front-runner to capture the school’s first-ever 13th Region championship by returning its top five scorers from last season.

But it’s not going to be easy.

Defending 13th Region champion North Laurel returns four key players back from last season’s squad that shocked many en route to the program’s first regional title.

Other teams to watch out for: Clay County, South Laurel and Pineville. The Tigers will return three starters from last season’s 13th Region runner-up squad, while an experienced South Laurel squad is ready to get back in the mix of things. And keep an eye on J.D. Strange’s Pineville Mountain Lions. They surprised many by upsetting Corbin in the 13th Region Tournament and this season things could be even better, with all five starters returning.

But when it’s all said and done, look for Harlan County to be cutting down the nets on its home court come March.

13th Region Preseason Rankings

1. Harlan County – The Black Bears return a lot of experience, but must find a way to get over the hump during regional tournament play. They’ve lost in first round action four straight years, but look to end that skid with the help of returning seniors Tyler Brewer (averaged 14 points per game last season), Chad Massingill (14.3), Alex Sergent (10.0), Aaron Caldwell (9.6) and James Bond (4.7).

2. North Laurel – The Jaguars have enough ammo to repeat as regional champions, but must find replacements for players such as Ethan Eversole and Ryan Shears. Senior guards Marcus Carson (14.1) and Kendrick Henson (5.7) will bring a lot of speed and experience to the table for North Laurel, while 6’7” Jake Allen (14.0) and 6’4” Austin Rush (5.2) will keep teams honest in the middle. Austin Thompson and Chris Miller and eighth grader, Peyton Broughton also look to help the Jaguars

3. Clay County – The Tigers were oh, so close to capturing their first 13th Region championship since 2001, last season, before falling to North Laurel in the regional finals. Clay County will be tough to beat again this season, with three starters returning. Senior guard Kendall Reed is back, along with Tyler McDaniel, who led the way with a 12.8 scoring average. Stephon Lyttle returns, along with Marty Bowling, Travis Smith, Jordan White and Jarrod Rice.

4. Knox Central - The Panthers are young and talented, but will have to find replacements for both Jonathan Barger and T.J. Kelley, as both played a big role in Knox Central’s 24-8 season last year. The Panthers do return 6’7” big man Tobie Merida (10.0) along with talented sophomore guard Matthew Barger (12.5). Nathan Cole, Jacob Wilburn, Dustin Hensley, Jeffrey Adams, Chad Marsee and Brandon Garrison will be a big help to the team as well. But the biggest news coming out of the Panther camp is the return of Jeffrey Canady, who adds another inside presence in the middle along with Merida. Canady sat out last season, but will be an instant contributer for Knox Central in both rebounding and scoring.

5. Pineville – The Mountain Lions surprised many last season by defeating Corbin in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament. Now, all eyes will be on James Strange’s squad with all five of its starters returning. Seniors John Simpson (15.7) and Byron David Asher (9.3) will be tough to stop in the paint, while seniors Jared Philpot (7.0), Seth Jeffrey (7.0) and Jacob Skinner (6.4) round out Pineville’s starters. Isaac Longworth and Cody Collett will also see varsity minutes this season.

6. South LaurelThe Cardinals have struggled in recent years, and they're coming off a dismal 11-22 season. But South Laurel returns a lot of experience and looks poised to compete for its first 13th Region championship since 2008. Leading the way will be sophomore Zac Baxter (14.5) along with senior Blake Sanders, who missed most of last season due to an injury. Sharpshooter Matt Slavey (8.7) returns, along with one of the top defenders in the region: Austin Rader. Also, keep an eye out for Austin Schaser, Trevor Grubb and Tyler Vandeventer.

7. Corbin -
The Redhounds saw their streak of reaching the 13th Region title game snapped at five, after being upset by Pineville in the first round of the 13th Region Tournament last season. Tony Pietrowski’s squad could surprise, but will have to find someone to replace the scoring of Travis Smith, who graduated last season. Freshman guard Trevor Hill has showed signs of picking up the scoring load, along with teammate Zach Farley, who averaged 12.2 points last season. Corbin will also return 6’5” center Robby Igo (6.5) along with Hunter Grubb, Caleb Maguet, Donnie Wilson, Andrew Johnson, Zach Henson and Joey Shelton.

8. Jackson County - The Generals could be the wild card team of the 13th Region. Greg Parrett’s squad picked up Jordan Fox, who played for Dixie Heights last season, as well as Steven Wagers, who averaged 6.5 points last season for Clay County. Parrett’s squad has the nucleus in place to make a run at both North Laurel and Clay County, but players like senior Austin Whitehead and sophomores Zach Lawson and Jacob Hammonds must step up as well.

9. Middlesboro – The Yellow Jackets are another intriguing team that surprised many last season by going 18-14 and upsetting Harlan County in the 52nd District title game. Now, second-year coach Russ Thompson will try to surprise again. He has four starters returning: Donnie Foister (9.3), Michael Wilson, Derek Smith and Boone Bowling. Middlesboro also has solid players in Jarrell Stephney, Austin Poindexter, Zach Riddle and Blake Davis.

10. Williamsburg – The Yellow Jackets return enough of an arsenal to surprise many in the 50th District and 13th Region this season. Patrick Robinson’s squad is young and talented, with Dalton Sizemore (11.8), Skylar Griffith (9.8) and Corey Shelton (5.6) returning. Freshman Andrew Griffith will be a plus in the middle, along with Chase Lowrie, Garrett Faulkner and Jacob Jeffers.

11. Bell County – The Bobcats are going to have to reload a bit after graduating a lot of talent over the past two years. Look for junior guard Tyler Potter (12.5) to lead the way for Bell County.

12. Harlan – The Green Dragons have a new coach in David Parks and return a senior dominated squad led by 6’3” forward David Allen (10.5).

13. Barbourville – Dinky Phipps’ squad was picked by many to win the school’s first-ever regional title last season, but Barbourville fell short in the first round of the 51st District Tournament. Now the Tigers will be in rebuilding mode, with senior Devin Mills (11.9) along with juniors Alexander Phipps, Jason Mills and Tanner Moore returning.

14. Whitley County – The Colonels were only 5-26 under first-year coach Jerry Overbey last season, but look for better things to come during the 2012 campaign. 6’4” Michael Powers returns with a 15.5 pt. scoring average.

15. Lynn Camp – The Wildcats struggled last season – winning only three games. But coach Clyde Dixon will have an improved team this year. Look for Skylar McFarland, Chase Turner and Zack Smith to lead the Wildcats to more wins in 2012.

16. Oneida Baptist – The Mountaineers look to build on last season’s 13-14 mark, with starters David Adeoso (14.4) and Richard Guzeh (13.1) returning.

17. Red Bird – The Cardinals won only six games last season, but they return one of the best scorers in the state in Erik Young, who averaged 26.4 points last year. Red Bird also has Jamie Wilder (12.0) and Ricky Smith (9.6) returning.

Top Players in the 13th Region

1. Jake Allen, center, (North Laurel)
Not only can Allen hurt you in the post, but he’s a deadly three-point shooter, as well.

2. Tyler Brewer, guard (Harlan County) – Solid guard, who is very versatile for the Black Bears.

3. Marcus Carson, guard (North Laurel) – One of the best defensive players in the state, Carson utilizes his speed to the fullest.

4. Tyler McDaniel, guard (Clay County) - Solid ball handler, who is smooth as can be with his jumper.

5. Zac Baxter, guard (South Laurel) – At times, last season, Baxter showed that he’s one of the best scorers in the 13th Region.

6. John Simpson, center (Pineville) – One of the best post players in the 13th Region.

7. Alex Sergent, guard (Harlan County) – Dangerous weapon for Harlan County. He can shoot well from the outside and has lots of speed.

8. Tobie Merida, center (Knox Central) – Has the potential to be one of the top three players in the region.

9. Chad Massingill, guard (Harlan County) – Averaged 14.3 points last season. Look for that number to improve.

10. Matthew Barger, guard (Knox Central) – Only a sophomore, but has already shown he deserves to be listed among the 13th Region’s elite players.