|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Lauren Epperson (24) goes up for a shot in Monday's game against Campbell County. The Ladybirds are 7-2 on the season.|
Highlands returned five players with significant varsity experience from last year's 30-4 team that won the 36th District before losing to eventual state champion Covington Holy Cross in the 9th Region semifinals. That was the most wins Highlands had since Jaime Walz-Richey became head coach in 2002.
The returning starters are three seniors in fifth-year starting guard Brianna Adler, fourth-year starting point guard Haley Coffey and third-year starting post McKenzie Leigh. Freshman guard Zoie Barth and junior forward Kiersten Clukey played crucial minutes off the bench on that team.
So far, Highlands owns a nice 7-2 record. The Ladybirds opened the season with a last-second 53-52 loss to Louisville Sacred Heart, won seven straight including three wins over 36th District opponents before losing 32-25 to Campbell County on Monday.
The injury bug has hurt Highlands early on. Barth has missed the last couple games because of injury and Coffey missed the first couple games. But Clukey said doctors just cleared her to play.
"We haven't had a game where we've had everyone healthy so we're ready for that to happen," Richey said. "Who knows when that's going to be? But I have other girls stepping up and that's what we have to have."
That includes several members of the highly-touted freshman class. Freshman forward Chloe Jansen has had some big games for Highlands. Jansen and others are still getting used to things like the speed of the game.
"It's a whole new game. It's faster," Jansen said. "You just have to gel with the team. The team has been welcoming. We could be a great team if we play our game. But we have to show up for every game and be ready to play."
Highlands has four seniors total. The other is forward Izzy Schultz. Schultz has seen a lot of action because of the injuries and has helped provide leadership.
"Leadership is just something that's really important," Schultz said. "I think it's good we're learning our own roles and just coming together. (Against Campbell County) it showed on defense that we're learning to trust each other. On the whole, we have to get better each day. If we take this and learn from it, I think we'll get better for the next time."
Adler leads Highlands averaging 14.4 points per game and Barth has followed at 13 per game prior to the injury. Coffey is third averaging 8.3 points per game and junior forward Lauren Epperson is fourth at 6.7.
The Highlands defense has been solid this season allowing an average of just more than 34 points per game while scoring about 56. But in big games, the Ladybirds know they need to rebound better. That hurt them in the loss to Campbell County.
Highlands has 235 rebounds on the season. Leigh leads the way averaging 5.3 per contest and junior guard Macy Gabbard is second averaging 3.4.
The Ladybirds still have improvements to make offensively. They struggled against Campbell County's pressure defense. A big reason is Highlands could not consistently drive into the paint, force help and pass off for wide-open shots.
"If anyone knows Highlands, they shut our threes down immediately," Coffey said. "With Zoie and I being able to drive and dish like we have for the last two years, it opens up our three-point shooters like Brianna. Once we hit a three, everything flows better."
Highlands has made 166-of-389 shots on the season for a 42.7 percent clip including 50-of-146 three-point tries for 34 percent. Richey said she wants the players to understand how important every possession is, especially in big games.
The free-throw shooting could also use some work. Highlands has made just 112-of-176 attempts there for about 64 percent. That also cost the Ladybirds in the loss to Campbell County as they made just 10-of-18 for about 56 percent. They missed several front ends of 1-and-1 opportunities.
"We talked about that," Richey said. "We have to get in the gym and shoot free throws. It's not something that's going to come overnight. We're down in the middle school but the armory is open so we have to get down there."
Next up for Highlands is the annual LaRosa's Holiday Classic at Conner. The Ladybirds won it three years ago.
The first game is Tuesday against 4-4 Ashland Blazer at 3:30 p.m. The Kittens have won four straight 16th Region championships, including a state semifinal appearance in 2014.