Bluebirds Aimed for Better Quickness, Physical Strength in Off-Season
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior 5-7 guard Piper Macke takes a jumper in the 36th District semifinals last year against Dayton. Macke among others are hoping for more contributions this season.|
Highlands last won the 9th Region title in 2001.
Last year, the Bluebirds finished 24-8 and won their fifth 36th District championship in the last six seasons.Down the stretch, Highlands won 13-of-14 games entering the 9th Region Tournament. But the Bluebirds drew the one time it lost to during that stretch in the 9th Region Quarterfinals in the Conner Lady Cougars and suffered a fate similar to the two regular season meetings in a 54-46 loss at the BB&T Center on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.
Highlands finished 13-5 in region play with all five losses coming against 33rd District teams including the three to Conner. Ryle won its first-ever region championship last year before losing to eventual state runner-up Louisville Mercy in the state quarterfinals. The Bluebirds went 1-2 against three eventual region champs losing to Ryle and 16th Region and state semifinalist Boyd County and beating 8th Region champion Simon Kenton.
The Bluebirds returned all but three players who dressed for varsity last year and have some talented newcomers. They graduated starting guard Brooke Dill and senior Olivia Gessner and junior Audrey Graves decided not to come out this year.
But Highlands knew it had to get better to catch Conner and Ryle. Ryle also graduated one senior. The Lady Raiders enter the season as the favorite to repeat as region champions with the return of all five starters including senior guard Lauren Schwartz, a Rice University (in Houston, Texas) commit and junior point guard Maddie Scherr, an NCAA Division I recruit including the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. Conner also returns a lot of talent from last year.
Highlands veteran Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey enters her 17th season with an overall record of 322-165. During her tenure, the Bluebirds own seven district championship and have one appearance in the region championship game losing to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the title game in 2013.
The Bluebirds focused on becoming quicker and physically stronger. They have a lot of versatility allowing them to throw a number of offensive set and different looks defensively out of man and zone defenses. Highlands outscored opponents, 1,770-1,405 for an average of just more than 55 to just under 44. Highlands made 602-of-1,486 shots last year for about 41 percent and 156-of-521 three-point tries for just under 30 percent. The Bluebirds also made 408-of-574 free throws for just more than 71 percent and grabbed exactly 900 rebounds.
"We try to emphasize to the girls it's about match-ups," Richey said. "If we see a match-up that we think we can take advantage of, we try to do that. The girls have to have confidence in themselves. If your shots aren't falling, you have to get in the gym."
Highlands senior guards Zoie Barth at 5-foot-8-inches and 5-7 Chloe Jansen lead the way. Barth has dressed on varsity since the seventh grade and Jansen first made the varsity rotation as a freshman. Barth led Highlands with 596 points and 189 rebounds last year for averages of 19.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game respectively. Jansen averaged 6.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Barth has 1,779 career points. Barth has offers from Georgetown College down the road, NCAA Division II Trevecca University in Nashville and the University of Tennessee-Martin from the Ohio Valley Conference.
"Leadership is definitely a key to our success. As a team, we're very tightly knit," Barth said. "We're close on and off the court, which is nice. But we know once we step on the court, we mean business and we like to keep the competitive atmosphere every time we step on the court. It's very important that Chloe and I have our teammates' trust. We hold each other accountable for each others' mistakes and make sure everyone is doing the best that they can. But we're also the first to tell them they're doing something right. I think the balance is key to getting the best outcome we can."
Highlands also returns three other players who started last year. They are senior 5-4 guard Ashley Hayes, 5-8 senior forward Hanna Buecker and 5-10 sophomore forward Rory O'Hara. Junior 5-7 guard Piper Macke saw some significant minutes once she became eligible to play varsity in February.
Conner slowed Barth down with a Box-and-One defense in the region quarterfinals last year. Richey, a 1996 Highlands alum who ranks second in Kentucky basketball history with 4,948 career points, saw similar junk defenses in her playing days.
"When that situation comes up, we have to have other girls step up to make shots. We're making sure our other girls are confident in their shooting," Richey said. "Ashley and Piper had those shots (in the corners) and this year, I know they'll make them."
Rebounding will also be a key again this year. O'Hara is the tallest player of the 10 players expected to contribute heavily at least early in the season. O'Hara finished second on the Bluebirds in scoring last year averaging 8.3 points per game.
"We're not that tall, but because we are physically stronger than most teams, we can get the boards. It's a huge thing. It's all about mind over matter," O'Hara said. "No matter how tall or how small you're going against, you have to get the rebound for yourself and you have to want it."
Highlands has five players listed on the combined varsity and junior varsity roster that helped the soccer team to a state runner-up finish. They have been practicing for two weeks. That includes Buecker and two key reserves from last year in junior 5-7 guard Maggie Hinegardner and 5-6 sophomore guard Kenzie Nehus. But Richey has dealt with this issue before.
"I don't expect them to come up and work out a bunch during the season so a lot of them haven't touched the basketball a lot so we're just getting the fundamentals back with them and getting them the feel for the basketball," Richey said. "It's going to take some time."
Highlands has five seniors altogether. The fifth one is a transfer from Cincinnati Roger Bacon in 5-9 forward Shanaya Figg. Sophomore 5-7 forward Emma Riccobene also returns after receiving key minutes last year.
The Highlands coaching staff from last year remains intact for the most part. Assistants Bert Richey, Jon McSorley and Jeff Schaefer return and 2010 Highlands alum Katie Allen joins the staff replacing Tara Booth-Smith.
Highlands opens the season against Scott on Nov. 27 in Fort Thomas. Game time is 7:30 p.m.