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Friday, January 6, 2017

Crucial District Games

Highlands plays host to solid 36th District opponents

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands sophomore Olivia Gessner makes a move in a recent game.
Before reaching for higher goals in any high school sport, teams clearly have to take care of business in their own back yards.

The Highlands basketball teams will look to do that in crucial 36th District games this weekend. Both games take place in the friendly confines of the recently renovated Highlands Gymnasium,

Newport Central Catholic at Highlands Girls:

The 36th District championship has gone to either of them every year since 2006. Highlands (9-4 overall) has won three of the last four crowns after the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (6-5) won four straight between 2009 and 2012.

Both teams find themselves 2-0 in district action almost assuring themselves of not playing on the first night of the district tournament in the four-five seed game with the winner taking on the top seed. The winner of the game starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday earns a huge leg up for the top seed. Highlands has been in that spot in the previous three years since the district went to seeding and has won five of the last six meetings.

Highlands sophomore Zoie Barth has the most experience in these games having played on varsity since the seventh grade. Barth leads Highlands averaging 15.8 points per game and also averages 4.7 rebounds per game.

"It's always a good game against NCC," Barth said. "They have a solid team this year so we know we have to come out with a lot of energy and play relaxed under the pressure, but come and play as a team and come energetic. The younger girls are doing awesome. Toward the very beginning of the season, you could tell they were nervous. But now they come off the bench confident and they're able to keep the energy up of the starting five so that's really nice."

Senior Jenna Martin is second averaging 14.9 points per game. Highlands Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey said their teammates know defenses draw up game plans to contain them. Senior Lauren Epperson averages 7.4 points and leads Highlands averaging 5.2 rebounds per game.

"With this in mind, the other players understand that if they cut when either of them have the ball and they are open, they will get the ball," Richey said. "This has happened in many games where Jenna and Zoie have numerous assists because of this."

Highlands has outscored its opponents, 792-577 overall for an average of about 61-44. The Ladybirds have hit 281-of-643 shots for 44 percent including 89-of-242 three-point tries for 37 percent. They've also made 141-of-198 free throws for 71 percent.

The key for Highlands is rebounding as it has been all year. The Ladybirds average 26.5 rebounds per game.

NewCath has some size with senior center Aija Rice in the center. Rice averaged 7.8 points per game and junior Lexy Breen averaged 14.2 prior to the Cambpell County game. Cincinnati St. Ursula outrebounded Highlands, 39-29 holding the Ladybirds to their lowest offensive output of the season in a 47-41 Highlands loss.

Both teams stand undefeated in region play. Highlands is 4-0 and NewCath is 5-0. The Thoroughbreds have struggled outside region play winning only against Hopkins County Central on the road. Campbell County handed the Thoroughbreds a 61-44 defeat Wednesday.

This game generally sees a lot of former players come back to watch. That includes Jesse "Dirt" Daley (Class of 2013), Hope Cutter (2010), Katie Allen (2010) and Whitney Quillen (2015).

"Our program appreciates when we have fans in the stands at our games," Richey said. "It could be some of our alumni, students, parents or even community members at our games. We don't really care who it is. Every year, the players put a lot of time into their game and love to be able to display their talents in front of fans."

Newport at Highlands Boys:

At 5-9 overall, the host Bluebirds find themselves just two wins shy of last year's total. They hope to carry those improvements into the 36th District opener at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Highlands has struggled in district play the last two years going 1-3 during the season. That has meant a fourth seed in the district tournament. The Bluebirds have beaten fifth-seeded Dayton before falling to eight-time defending champion Newport Central Catholic in the district semifinals.

The Bluebirds hung tough for three quarters against Cooper on Tuesday. Highlands has been in many of its games this year.

"Cooper is a top 10 team in the state for a reason," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "They can defend and have multiple guys who can score. We have to continue to work the ball inside. It was a good yard stick to see where we are and what we need to do to become a top-tier team in the (9th) region."

Highlands will again start with 6-foot-5-inch senior center Kyle Finfrock in the middle. Finfrock averages just more than 13 points per game. Guards like senior Bryce Traylor and junior Braden Posey have given Highlands a nice outside game at times with others finding their groove.

Newport (9-6) comes into the game with a district win over Dayton under its belt. Listerman said the Wildcats will trap and mix things up defensively.

"We've been working really hard to not turn the ball over against the full-court pressure and just mainly stay under control and be able to set up our offense," said Carl Schoellman, Highlands junior guard. "Hopefully, it can lead us to success. We work on it every day in practice with transition drills so we all know each other pretty well. We have a good plan to handle their pressure. The key is to play hard the entire game."

Newport has eight sophomores on its roster to go with three juniors and two seniors. Sophomore Donnie Miller is their point guard with junior MeKell Burries and sophomore Makhi McGuire giving them solid perimeter threats. Sophomore Tahj Harding has given Newport solid play in the post with senior Anthony Harmon and brothers Najee Williams, a senior, and Najae Williams, a junior providing nice support.

Highlands last beat Newport, 75-64 in the 36th District semifinals in 2014. That marked the last time the Bluebirds made the 9th Region Tournament.

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