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Saturday, November 24, 2018

2018-19 Highlands Bluebirds Boys Basketball Preview

Highlands Hopes to Take More Steps Forward

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior wing Nate Roberts goes up for a score at Newport last year.
During the 2017-18 school year, the Highlands Bluebirds claimed all but one of seven 36th District crowns and have started this school year 3-for-3 in the fall.

The Highlands boys basketball team was that one team that didn't claim a district championship. The Bluebirds hope to win that elusive crown that the program has not achieved since 2008. There is a huge reason that could happen this year.

"This year, I would say we're more confident to win district than we have been in the past," said Ryan Leigh, Highlands 6-foot-1-inch senior forward. "In the past, if we played really well, we'd win. This year, we're not just hoping to win. We're expecting to win."

Entering his sixth season as head coach at Highlands, Kevin Listerman has often talked about 'the process.' The Bluebirds may be 49-81 over the previous five seasons. But the record does not reflect the improvements the program has seen over the years.

Highlands finished a Listerman-Era best 13-15 last year coming a few plays short of recording its first winning season since going 14-10 in the 2009-10 campaign. The Bluebirds fell a three-point shot away from beating Newport Central Catholic for the first time since that season in a 61-59 loss in the 36th District semifinals in Fort Thomas. Highlands last made the 9th Region Tournament in Listerman's first season as head coach in 2013.

The Bluebirds graduated six seniors from that team in guards Carl Schoellman, Robby Gabbard, Jacob Noe, forwards Adam Uhlenbrock, Griffin Huber and center Tyler Gulley. But six players who saw action in 21 or more games last year return including Leigh, whom Listerman hopes to see have a break-out season.

The other five players with that amount of varsity experience returning are senior guard Jack Hegge, senior forward Austin King, senior wings Nate Roberts, Alex Starkey and sophomore point guard Sam Vinson. Starkey is the leading returning scorer of that group averaging 7.5 points per game. Listerman said Hegge has come a long way and praised Roberts, Starkey and Vinson for building off last year's experiences.

"They have bought into putting the time in and we're hopeful the results come as a result of the work," Listerman said. "This group is not afraid to do that. They've also been very unselfish and they play extremely hard so that combination has us very optimistic about the season."

Listerman said King and senior power forward Will Salmon understand their roles and push each other hard. Listerman also hopes senior wing Tristan Thompson and senior forward Grady Cramer add to that depth.

Senior 6-foot-5-inch power forward Ben Sisson looks to be the top priority defensively for opponents. After returning from a football injury last year, Sisson averaged team-highs of 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Highlands has nine seniors total on the team.

"We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things," Listerman said. "They just play so hard that I think we'll be able to wear teams down as we go through the season."

But that's where teamwork comes into play, Hegge said. Opponents outscored Highlands, 1,573-1,542 last year for averages of just more than 56-55. The Bluebirds made 554-of-1,311 shots for 42 percent including 156-of-451 three-point tries for just under 35 percent. They also made 228-of-373 free throws for 61 percent and grabbed 866 team rebounds.

"Spacing is very important," Hegge said. "Ben will get double-teamed all game no matter who we're playing so it will be pretty vital for us to get on the corners, get on the wings and be able to knock some shots down, preferably some threes."

The Bluebirds had 11 games decided by nine or fewer points last year. They went 6-5 in those games.
Located in the Fort Thomas Plaza. 

"Having senior leadership and guys that have been in there in those critical minutes, we expect to make those plays," Listerman said. "Last year, we won some of those games where we played pretty well and found a way to win at the end. We had a couple of them go the other way late in the season so hopefully this year, we flip that switch. We have a lot of goals that we want to accomplish. I think our guys are focused on the big team goals and understand individual success will come as a part of the collective success."

Five other Bluebirds could push the veterans for action. Junior guards Jacob Brass and Hunter Ahlfeld saw time in key moments last year. Junior forward Jack Delagrange has a slow-motion video up on Twitter of himself rising up and dunking in practice.

Highlands also has two promising underclassmen on the roster in addition to Vinson. They are sophomore forward Luke Muller and freshman guard Zach Barth. Muller helped the Highlands golf team to a region championship and eighth-place finish in the state tournament in the fall and Barth is the younger brother of Zoie Barth, a sixth-year senior point guard and 1,779-point scorer on the girls basketball team.

Highlands opens the season Nov. 29 at Boone County. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

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