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Sunday, November 26, 2017

2017 Highlands Girls Basketball Preview

Highlands Hopes to Figure Out 9th Region Mountain

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Hanna Buecker goes in for a score against Cooper in the 9th Region quarterfinals last year. Buecker is a key returning player off last year's 22-9 squad.
Over the last couple years, the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball program has been in the hunt for the 9th Region crown.

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The Bluebirds had just not been able to get over the hump. Highlands lost to Notre Dame in the region championship in 2013 before losing in the region semifinals the next three seasons. For the first time since 2012 last year, Highlands did not win a game in the region tournament falling 77-62 to Cooper in the region quarterfinals. Highlands has won the 36th District championship four times in the past five years.

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Highlands graduated six seniors off that squad including three starters in Emma Little, Lauren Epperson and Jenna Martin. Martin took her talents to Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro after averaging 17.1 points per game. Macy GabbardTaylor Baioni and Rachel Vinson also graduated.

Highlands outscored opponents, 1,874-1,482 last year. The Bluebirds often used their speed to run up and down the court and wear opponents down. They made 654-of-1,526 shots for just under 43 percent and 214-of-589 three-point tries for 36 percent. Highlands continued to shoot well at the free-throw line making 352-of-516 for about 68 percent and grabbed 786 rebounds.

The Bluebirds do not have the size of other teams. Their tallest players are 5-foot-8-inches.

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"We're going to have to use our speed and athleticism to our advantage and we're going to have to outwork people," said Jaime Walz-Richey, veteran Highlands Head Coach. "We're going to be one of the smallest teams so we're going to have to use the fundamentals of boxing out and going to get the ball."

But the Bluebirds do return one of the region's best players in junior guard Zoie Barth. Barth averaged 14.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last year. Highlands moved Barth all over the court to give teams different looks. Barth has played on varsity since the seventh grade and has learned a lot from previous players in terms of leadership.

"We're definitely showing the ropes for the younger girls in terms of the drills and what Highlands basketball is all about," Barth said. "It's different for most of them because they haven't been introduced to high school sports as much as the juniors and upperclassmen have. We're trying to set the precedents of working hard, effort and staying focused. It's really cool the younger girls get more comfortable, aggressive and already show improvement."

They also return several other players with a lot of varsity experience. The lone senior is guard Brooke Dill. Junior forward Hanna Buecker and junior guard Chloe Jansen also saw extensive varsity experience last year. Junior guards Olivia Gessner and Ashley Hayes also saw some varsity action last year. Highlands has not been afraid to spread teams out in the past using their great ball handling skills learned at a young age and could do so again this year.

"I think everybody on our team can handle the ball pretty well so I don't think we'll have any trouble there," Jansen said. "Coming to the high school camp when we were little and building off that because that was the main focus. We're working with younger kids now in the Moyer League. We're building them off dribbling and shooting so that takes away the stress when they're older and they can move on to game situations."

Several underclassmen could challenge for playing time. Sophomore forward Maggie Hinegardner, sophomore guard Audrey Graves, sophomore center Meghan Walz and freshman forward Rory O'Hara dressed on varsity the last couple games of the season. Freshman guard Kenzie Nehus and freshman forward Emma Riccobene
hope to give the Bluebirds depth.

"I think the girls know they have to work hard. Nothing is given to them," Richey said. "They're going to have to earn their spot and they know we have Highlands across their chests. So every time we step out, it's going to be the opponents' best game so we have to bring our A game every game. That's what we emphasize in practice. We have to play hard and push each other."

Highlands does not open with Louisville Sacred Heart like the past couple years. But Highlands does play in the Traditonal Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic in adddition to the annual LaRosa's Holiday Classic at Conner in late December.

"It's a long season. We don't expect to play our best game in December," Richey said. "We have to continue to improve as individuals and as a team and be ready when post-season comes around."

Highlands opens the season at Scott on Monday. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

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