|Highlands Hopes for Breakthrough Season|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Luke LaFrange (33) takes a shot against Covington Catholic last year. LaFrange is one of four returning starters for the Bluebirds.|
He knew it would be a process to change the culture of the Highlands Bluebirds basketball program when he took over as head coach in 2013. In the three years since then, Highlands owns an overall record of 24-49 including a 7-17 mark last year.
The Bluebirds graduated one starter in Mitch Cain and four other seniors off that squad. They are Chandler New, Jared Dougherty, Bo Hebel and Nick Kendall. Kendall and Cain are playing football at Wittenberg University in Springfield (Ohio) and Dougherty is playing football at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia (Kentucky). Cain averaged about 13 points per game last year.
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Highlands has been to the 9th Region Tournament just once since 2012. It came in Listerman's first season as a head coach in 2014. In the last two seasons, Highlands went 1-3 in 36th District action during the regular season and wound up the fourth seed in the district tournament. The Bluebirds beat Dayton in the first round before losing to eight-time defending district champion Newport Central Catholic in the district tournament semifinals.
Highlands last won a district championship in 2008. The last region tournament win for the Bluebirds came in 2009 and the last region championship came in 2001.
The biggest things Highlands has going in the preseason is depth and experience. The Bluebirds return four starters in seniors Bradley Greene (5-foot-10-inches), 6-5 Kyle Finfrock, 6-3 Luke LaFrange and junior 5-10 guard Braden Posey. Finfrock, a center, averaged 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds a game last year giving Highlands a solid post presence. Greene will be a guard and LaFrange a forward. Listerman said he prefers to play pressure defense and an up-tempo offense when he took the job. The depth might allow the Bluebirds to do more of that this year.
"The biggest thing is we're in a process of really starting to see the fruits of our labor of the first three years," Listerman said. "The kids have found value in putting time into basketball outside the basketball season and they really have since I started, but now that we have the effect of three years of putting that time in, we're really starting to see the kids improve in leaps and bounds. We're able to see the program grow, which is fantastic."
Highlands started practicing with a full squad on Oct. 15 before the football players joined shortly after the season ended sooner than usual. That will allow the Bluebirds to practice a few weeks before the games start unlike previous years.
The Bluebirds have six seniors total. That includes the return of 5-11 guard Bryce Traylor. Traylor showed promise as a sophomore before moving to Florida his junior season. The other two seniors in 6-2 center Brent Angel and 6-3 forward Morgan Race are expected to give the Bluebirds more size.
"Our seniors have been playing together ever since we were kids so our chemistry has always been good," LaFrange said. "We're best friends with the juniors so we're mixing together really well. It's nothing like last year. It's looking really good."
Highlands has 25 players listed on the varsity and junior varsity level. That includes seven juniors in 6-3 forward Elliot Schuett, 6-0 guard Robby Gabbard, 6-2 forward Griffin Huber, 6-3 forward Adam Uhlenbrock, 6-0 guard Jacob Noe and 6-0 guard Carl Schoellman in addition to Posey.
"The sky is the limit for this team. We have a lot of shooters," Traylor said. "We have a wide range of players on this team. There are a lot of players who can make plays on this team. That's what makes it so exciting."
Eleven sophomores and a freshman could also make an impact on the squad. The sophomores are guard in 6-2 Nate Roberts, 5-10 Aubrey Posey, 5-11 Jack Hegge, 5-11 Casey Greene, 6-0 Ryan Leigh and 6-1 Will Salmon. The forwards are 6-3 Ben Sisson, 6-0 Tristan Thompson, 6-2 Alex Starkey and 6-1 Austin King. The center in that class is 6-5 Jake Schneider. The freshman is 6-5 forward Isaac Salter.
Opponents outscored Highlands, 1,451-1,242 for an average of about 60-52. The Bluebirds grabbed 768 rebounds total and hit 453-of-1,182 shots from the field for 38.3 percent including 99-of-343 three-point tries for almost 29 percent. Highlands also hit 222-of-382 free-throw tries for 58 percent.
Newport Central Catholic may be the favorite to win the district for a ninth straight year until someone beats the Thoroughbreds. But unless someone emerges, NewCath does not return a dominant tall player that has graced that jersey the past couple years.
"We have to close the gap between us and Newport (Central) Catholic," Listerman said. "They've been the best team in our district for the last several years. The obviously return some very, very good players in Brennan Hall and (Luke) Moeves. They have a lot of talent. But we feel this is the year that we really can compete with them."
Highlands opens the year at Covington Holmes on Nov. 29. Game time is 7:30 p.m.