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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Critical Off-Season for Highlands Hoops Squads

Returning Players Already Preparing for Next Winter

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Ashley Hayes is one of 14 players who dressed on varsity to return next season.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Ben Sisson attempts a free throw in the 36th District semifinals against Newport Central Catholic. Sisson led the Bluebirds averaging 9.2 rebounds and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Another high school basketball season is in the books.

The Covington Catholic Colonels claimed their second state championship in five years at Rupp Arena with a convincing 73-55 win over the Scott County Cardinals in the Boys Sweet 16 Tournament. A week earlier, the Mercer County Titans won their second straight Girls Sweet 16 crown, 74-34 over Louisville Mercy at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.

Mercer County guard Seygan Robins won Kentucky's Ms. Basketball award. She will be playing for 1990 Highlands alum and current University of Louisville women's hoops Head Coach Jeff Walz next season.

Post-game interviews take place in a designated media room after the game except for the championship game. The head coach and three or four players come into that room after the game to talk to the press. Anyone associated with the Highlands basketball teams might wonder what life would be like if the Bluebirds walked through those doors. Neither Highlands squad has won the 9th Region crown since they both did it in 2001.

The Ryle Lady Raiders won the 9th Region girls tournament for the first time in school history this year. They beat 8th Region champion Simon Kenton, 61-56 in the first round of the state tournament before losing 93-78 to Mercy in the state quarterfinals.

After the game, Ryle junior guard and NCAA Division I recruit Lauren Schwartz stated, "We'll be back." It is an understandable expectation considering Ryle graduates one senior from a 29-7 team that lost once in region play this past season. Another Division I recruit in sophomore guard Maddie Scherr also returns.

But for the Highlands girls hoops members of the Class of 2019, that would mean they'll graduate without an appearance in the state tournament that moves to Lexington next year. Members of that class are guards Zoie Barth, Olivia Gessner, Chloe Jansen, Ashley Hayes and forward Hanna Buecker. Barth led Highlands averaging 19.2 points per game this past season. Barth said teams face-guarded her this year and she wants to do better against that.

Junior Morgan Coffey did not play last year, but said she'll try out next season. Coffey is playing softball this fall. This means this off-season will be as big as ever.

Highlands only graduates guard Brooke Dill from the 24-8 squad. The Bluebirds have won no fewer than 22 games the past six seasons improving Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey's record to 322-165 in 16 seasons.

"They all understand that they have to improve in order to compete at the 9th Region (Tournament), win that regional title and to get playing time," Walz-Richey said. "After Spring Break, I'll sit down with them individually and look at their strengths and weaknesses that the coaches see that we need them to improve on. The girls put a lot of effort in from April all the way to October trying to improve those things. That is what's paid off."

During that time, Highlands has won seven 36th District championships and only missed the 9th Region Tournament once in 2010. But things have just not gone their way in the region tournament since 2002. Highands is 7-8 in the region quarterfinals including losses to Conner and Cooper in that round in the last two seasons respectively and just 1-6 in the region semifinals. Highlands lost to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the region title game in 2013.

The good news for Highlands is the last time the team graduated just one senior, the Bluebirds went 30-4 during the 2014-15 campaign. Unfortunately, that squad lost to eventual state champion Covington Holy Cross in the region semifinals.

Highlands saw huge contributions from a number of underclassmen including sophomores Piper Macke, Maggie Hinegardner and freshmen Rory O'Hara, Kenzie Nehus and Emma Riccobene. The Highlands junior varsity team only lost once this year during the regular season.

"During the off-season, I know myself as well as the other juniors will be working our hardest to not only prepare ourselves, but our teammates for the upcoming season," Hayes said. "I believe each one of us will be considering what our coaches have for us to improve on so that we can have an even better season than last year. (We're) looking forward to not only show each other what we are capable of, but show other teams what we are capable of in the upcoming season."

Richey said some returning players came into the gym after the season ended and began shooting. Richey said the Bluebirds will take this week and Spring Break before coming back into the gym improving their individual games.

The Highlands boys took another small step this year going 13-15. That marked the first time the Bluebirds had won that many games in a season since 2011.

Highlands has not been to the 9th Region Tournament since 2014. Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman said the returning players did not put their balls away for the time being.

"It's not really what you do. It's how you do it and how much you do it," Listerman said. "The fundamentals and skills of basketball don't change. It's about shooting, dribbling and passing so you have to put time into the gym without having coaches there. There's no secret to becoming a great player. It's simply putting in the time. The biggest culture change for us particularly on the boys side is just the value that our kids see in putting the time in now and they do it on their own. We have a lot of kids that are going to the armory, the YMCA then they're still getting in to football weights. They're lifting with us and they're going to the open gyms and doing our skill workouts."

Highlands does graduate six seniors in guards Robby Gabbard, Jacob Noe, Carl Schoellman, forwards Adam Uhlenbrock, Griffin Huber and center Tyler Gulley. But junior forward Alex Starkey, the MVP of last year's team returns along with the likes of junior forward Ben Sisson and guards Austin King, Nate Roberts, Ryan Leigh, Jack Hegge and freshman guard Sam Vinson.

Sisson led the Bluebirds averaging 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game after returning from a football injury 17 games into the season. Highlands had glimpses of offensive balance inside and outside this year.

"I think we can be pretty special next year," Sisson said. "We have a bunch of guys dedicated to the process. We have to come together as a team and just have a good flow to our offense and put some points on the board."

Highlands won its last 36th District championship in 2008. The Newport Wildcats could again be the favorite. They only lose three seniors including their leading scorer at 21.5 points per game in senior guard MeKell Burries. Newport Central Catholic graduates seven seniors including their top two scorers in guard Brennan Hall and forward Brendan Luken.

But the Bluebirds could be the deepest team in the district with members of the successful junior varsity and freshman teams looking to contribute next year. The freshman team finished runner-up to Covington Catholic in the freshman tournament to end the season.

"It's about playing together. The more they play together, the better we will be," Listerman said. "That's why we play 20 to 25 games in the summer. That's why we do our off-season weight trainings. There's a lot that goes into it that a lot of people don't understand."

Both Highlands programs have one state runner-up finish in program history. The Highlands girls finished state runner-up in 1994 and the Bluebird boys earned their highest post-season finish in 1997.

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