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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Highlands Prepares for Home Battle of Undefeated Teams

Bluebirds to See How They Stack Up Against Defending Region Champions

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham. Highlands sophomore Kenzie Nehus (left) and senior Ashley Hayes (right) could be huge x-factors for the Bluebirds in their 9th Region showdown against Ryle on Friday in a battle of undefeated teams.
Current members of the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball teams ventured to BB&T Arena to watch the Ryle Lady Raiders make their first-ever appearance in the state tournament last spring.
After winning the first 9th Region championship in school history, Ryle (29-7 last year) beat Simon Kenton, 61-56 in the first round of the state tournament before losing 93-78 to eventual state runner-up Louisville Mercy in the state quarterfinals. Ryle graduated just one player off that time.

With the return of all five starters including two NCAA Division I recruits in senior guard Lauren Schwartz and junior Maddie Scherr, Ryle entered the season favored to repeat as region champions. Schwartz has signed to play at Rice University in Houston (Texas), a member of Conference USA. Scherr has offers from the likes of the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. After the loss to Mercey, Schwartz exclaimed, "We'll be back."

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Highlands (5-0 overall) will see where it stands against Ryle (6-0) at this point of the season in a huge home game Friday at 7:30 p.m. Ryle beat Highlands, 47-31 in the lone meeting last season. After beating Covington Holy Cross, 83-62 in Fort Thomas on Monday, Highlands watched Ryle beat host Campbell County, 81-61 Tuesday.

"We talked about that after (the Holy Cross win) that it's not going to be two people that's going to be able to beat Ryle," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "It's going to be everyone in that locker room. It's going to be all 15 players and all five coaches. It's going to be a collective game. Everyone has to know what we're doing offensively and defensively and be able to execute a game plan."

Highlands and Conner figured to be the biggest challengers to the Lady Raiders after the Bluebirds graduated just one player off last year's 24-8 team that lost 54-46 to Conner in the 9th Region quarterfinals. The Lady Cougars also returned several starters from last year's 23-9 team including senior guards Savannah Jordan and Courtney Hurst that lost 55-43 to Covington Holmes in the region semifinals. 

Ryle and Conner met in Hebron a week ago and the Lady Raiders won 60-49. Schwartz scored 22 and Scherr scored 17. Ryle Head Coach Katie Haitz challenged the supporting cast to improve to take the load off Schwartz and Scherr and sophomore Brie Crittendon has helped there. Crittendon scored 10 in the win over Conner (5-1 this season).

Highlands has outscored opponents, 338-212 for an average margin of victory of just more than 25 points per game. On the other side, Ryle has outscored opponents, 435-301 for an average margin of victory just more than 22 points per game.

Defensively, Richey said the Bluebirds have to do better knowing where shooters are on the court. Holy Cross senior guard Olivia Crigler made 8-of-10 three-point tries on her way to 28 points Monday.

Offensively, Highlands has hit 112-of-268 shots for just under 42 percent including 30-of-105 three-point tries for just under 29 percent. The Bluebirds are also making 70 percent (84-of-120) of their free throws.

The Bluebirds have five seniors. Richey can't say enough about their leadership. Senior Zoie Barth leads Highlands averaging 18 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Barth has 1,869 career points. She has been in the rotation for six seasons. Senior guard Chloe Jansen is in her fourth season in the varsity rotation with forward Hanna Buecker and senior guard Ashley Hayes dressing for varsity for the third season.

"The seniors need to pick up the team and keep the environment good so that we can do the little things correct," Hayes said. "It's important when you criticize the younger girls that you also make sure they know how to fix it and it's okay to make mistakes. It's how you build off that and how you build onto the team aspect."

Junior guard Piper Macke is second on the team averaging 10.4 points per game. Sophomore Rory O'Hara is third averaging 8.4. But others have hit double digits this year. Jansen scored 10 and Buecker scored 12 in the win over Grant County on Saturday.

"The x-factors are huge," Richey said. "We're going to have to have girls continue to step up and make shots when they're open because they're going to be open Friday night. I have a feeling they're going to be leaving people open that they're going to have to be confident in their shot and know it's going in when they shoot it and not be scared about the big-time situations."

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In the preseason, Richey talked about the importance of rebounding. The Bluebirds have 153 on the season for an average of just more than 30 per game. Highlands out-rebounded Holy Cross, 30-25. Highlands has also improved in other ways.

"We just keep working on our shooting and other things," said Kenzie Nehus, Highlands sophomore guard. "We keep going over all of our plays to make sure we know them solid. That way we can execute them well in the game."

A good number of the Highlands players saw their male counterparts beat Covington Catholic, 57-51 on Dec. 3 in front of a nice crowd at home. Richey hopes to see a good crowd Friday for a big reason.

"At the (BB&T) Arena and down in the district tournament, we usually have good crowds," Richey said. "That way when they play in front of a big crowd at BB&T, they're not shell-shocked. They're used to playing in front of big crowds. These girls work extremely hard. They deserve just like the boys do a great crowd every time they step out on the court."

Ryle comes into the game ranked in at least one national poll. The Lady Raiders are ranked 15th in the Maxpreps XCellent 25 poll.

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