First class: Chelsea’s Jason Harlow named girls basketball Coach of the Year

Published 9:40 am Tuesday, March 12, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Entering the 2023-24 season, Chelsea girls basketball coach Jason Harlow knew he had a tall task ahead of him.

Coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in their first season in Class 7A, which was their fifth straight trip to regionals, the Hornets had to replace seven seniors while navigating a challenging and ever-changing 7A landscape.

Beyond that, while the two seniors returning were the heart and soul of the team, neither Madeline Epperson nor Baylor McCluney were the team’s top scorers last season.

However, Harlow was confident in his players and the formula that has helped him turn Chelsea around from the depths it was when he arrived in 2018 to a perennial playoff team.

“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet or anything that’s going to make us better,” Harlow said before the season. “I think we just got to continue to do the things that have allowed us to be successful over the last five years to get to the Sweet 16.”

Sticking to the script proved to be exactly what the Hornets needed as they reached the top five of Class 7A and made their first Elite Eight appearance in Class 7A.

Because of how he helped the Hornets take the next step with a vastly different cast than a year ago, Harlow is the Shelby County Coach of the Year for the third time in the last six seasons.

To understand how he got to this point, you have to rewind all the way back to 2017-18, when Chelsea went just 3-22 before Harlow took over as coach.

That next season in 2018-19, the Hornets had a winning record for the first time since 2007-08 with a 16-13 mark, won both the regular season and tournament area championships and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001. As a result, Harlow won Coach of the Year.

From there, he improved to a 26-6 record in 2019-20, winning the area title and the Sweet 16 once again.

That set the table for a record-breaking 2020-21 season when he took Chelsea to its third area title in a row and first-ever Final Four after losing two starters. That led to Harlow winning Coach of the Year for the second time in three seasons.

The Hornets have been consistently excellent since he took over, including a run to the Class 6A Elite Eight in 2022 and the Class 7A Sweet 16 in 2023.

What’s the “magic bullet,” in Harlow’s words? A consistent identity and a positive culture with a strong leader at the helm.

One of the common threads of each of Harlow’s Chelsea teams since he took over is a stifling defense. Not only do the Hornets match up well, but they have always been exceptional when defending on the ball, creating pressure and forcing turnovers to set up the offense.

That was evident throughout the season as Chelsea stifled dynamic offenses across the state with their energy and pressure on the defensive end.

To accomplish that strategy year-in and year-out, you need buy-in from your players. Harlow has proved stellar at motivating his players and getting them to give their best effort to make the system work.

“We have a lot of unselfishness on this team,” Harlow said after the Hornets beat Sparkman in the Sweet 16. “There is one stat that this team cares about and that’s the win column.”

Wins came early and often for Chelsea as it opened the year on a 17-game win streak and continued that dominance throughout the season.

The Hornets dominated area matchups against local rivals Oak Mountain and Spain Park, going 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 32 points to seal a runner-up finish in Class 7A, Area 6 and advance to the Sweet 16 where they avenged last year’s loss to Sparkman.

Of their 26-6 record in 2023-24, four of those losses came to eventual state runner-up Hewitt-Trussville, with three of them decided by 10 points or less.

Harlow’s players were great individually as well, with Haley Trotter averaging a double-double and earning Shelby County Player of the Year, Sadie Schwallie dominating on defense and while shooting, Caroline Brown playing an indispensable role across the court and Olivia Pryor breaking out as a freshman.

Of course, Harlow is equally as concerned with the players who help lead in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet with Epperson and McCluney serving as key examples of players leading with their effort and words to help the Hornets succeed.

Those players within Harlow’s system helped elevate Chelsea beyond anything it could have imagined at the start of the season as it solidified its status as one of the top programs in the state after losing so much talent from the year before.

“Just really proud of the effort my kids showed over the course of this season,” Harlow said following Chelsea’s Elite Eight loss. “Coming into the year, graduating seven seniors and only having two kids coming back that were seniors that weren’t some of our statistical leaders, I’m really proud of the result of the entire season.”

Harlow wasn’t alone in his exceptional coaching performance this season.

Tyler Coppock led Vincent to its first Sweet 16 since 1996 and a share of the regular season area title after going 10-11 in 2022-23.

Crosby Morrison helped Pelham rediscover its identity without Laci Gogan to win the area title and then recover from losing star senior Karma Wynn in sub-regionals to reach another Elite Eight.

But in the end, Harlow’s ability to take Chelsea to unprecedented heights against some of the top competition in the state solidified his place once again as the Shelby County Coach of the Year.