Thursday, November 17, 2016

2016-17 Highlands Ladybirds Basketball Preview

Highlands pieces together another nice squad

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Lauren Epperson (middle) goes in for a shot in the 9th Region quarterfinals against Covington Holy Cross last year. Epperson is one of six seniors on the squad.
Veteran Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey said the team had a lot of work to do in the off-season in order to continue to enjoy the recent success.

Richey enters her 15th season as the head coach of the Highlands Ladybirds basketball team. Since she took over as head coach in 2002, Highlands owns a record of 276-148 including at least 22 wins in each of the last four seasons. That includes 36th District championships in three of the last four years and five overall.

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But with the graduation of four seniors from last year's 22-11 squad, Highlands had its fair share of question marks coming into the season. That squad won the district championship, knocked off defending state champion Covington Holy Cross in the 9th Region quarterfinals before losing 54-51 to Ryle in the region semifinals.

Brianna Adler (11.6 points per game) and Haley Coffey (eight points per game) had started in the back-court in each of the past four seasons. Post McKenzie Leigh (9.9 points per game, 6.5 rebounds a game) started for three seasons and Izzy Schultz provided some depth. Adler took her talents to Union College in Barbourville and Coffey is playing softball at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.

Richey and staff knew it could build around two returning starters in sophomore guard Zoie Barth and senior forward Lauren Epperson. Barth led Highlands averaging 12.4 points per game last year and made a team-high 118-of-144 free-throw attempts for almost 82 percent. Epperson finished second on the team with 97 rebounds averaging nearly three a game last year.

But while Highlands returned several others with varsity experience, some questions may have been answered in the form of a senior transfer from Notre Dame in guard Jenna Martin. Martin averaged 14.8 points per game for the Pandas last year.

Martin scored 16 points in a 46-38 Notre Dame win at Highlands on Jan. 5, 2016. Afterwards, Richey said Martin is "probably the best player in our region." Martin is committed to Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro.

The good news is Fort Thomas has solid youth leagues. That means the coaching staff at the high school can mostly focus on game situations instead of fundamentals.

"It's nice that our freshmen are practicing some with our varsity and JV in the system so they know what to expect," Richey said. "They understand the drills and they know what to do offensively and defensively."

Martin and Epperson are two of six seniors on the squad. The other four are posts Rachel Vinson, Taylor Baioni and guards Macy Gabbard and Emma Little. There is one junior in post Brooke Dill. Gabbard and Vinson saw time on varsity in back-up roles in at least 29 games as did sophomore forward Chloe Jansen.

"Like we tell the girls every day, we have to come in and compete," Richey said. "We have to push each other. This is Zoie's team. We're going to look to her to do a lot of things. We're also going to look to Jenna to help us and for Brooke Dill and the seniors to step up. The seniors have waited. We have to come out and compete. Every possession matters. We can't come out and jack shots up. We have to take advantage of things offensively and defensively and execute it."

Six sophomores total could contribute on the varsity level this year. The other four are posts Morgan Coffey, Hanna Buecker along with Ashley Hayes and Olivia Gessner. Martin said the team chemistry has been great in the pre-season.

"We have six really great leaders and our sophomores are taking on the leadership role as well," Martin said. "We work really well together so it all works out. Another important part of having vocal leaders is having players who know that the leaders are just trying to help the team. It's nothing personal. If I want to give constructive criticism, I know my teammates are going to take it well."

Highlands does not have the height it had the past couple seasons with Leigh. But the Ladybirds hope to negate that with their quickness.

"We're going to play more of a physical game this year since we don't have that height back," Vinson said. "We're going to have to get down and play hard. We're going to have to outwork everyone."

Highlands outscored opponents, 1,826-1,410 last year for an average of about 55-48. The Ladybirds made 577-of-1,427 shots last year for 40.4 percent including 174-of-548 from three-point range for 31.8 percent. Highlands also made 486-of-654 free-throw tries for 74.3 percent. The Ladybirds also grabbed a total of 867 rebounds.

Highlands scrimmages George Rogers Clark at Harrison County on Nov. 19 and Franklin County at home on Nov. 26 before opening the season at Louisville Sacred Heart on Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m.







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