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Thursday, November 21, 2019

PREVIEW: 2019-2020 Highlands Girls Basketball

Highlands Figuring Out Roles Early in Season

Highlands junior Rory O'Hara (left) and senior Maggie Hinegardner (right) defend Dixie Heights forward Madelyn Lawson (23) in the 9th Region semifinals last year. O'Hara and Hinegardner are two key returning players with experience from last year's 29-5 squad.
The 9th Region girls basketball tournament starts out like a maze in late winter at the BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.

The Highlands Bluebirds consistently find themselves as one of the eight teams at the starting line. They are always in the hunt to be first to the 9th Region championship prize. It just seems like the Bluebirds always finish several turns short.



Highlands put together another solid season at 29-5 last year. The Bluebirds won a fifth straight 36th District championship and started out the region tournament with a convincing 72-46 win over Covington Holy Cross for their first region tournament win in three years.

But the region semifinals are where the Bluebirds generally hit a wall having gone 1-7 in that round since a region runner-up finish in 2002. They built a 28-17 lead on Dixie Heights early in the third quarter. But the Lady Colonels hit four straight triples to take the lead and hold on for a 42-39 victory. Dixie Heights wound up losing 67-51 in the region championship to eventual state champion Ryle.

Ryle comes into the season favored to three-peat as region champs with the return of once-in-a-lifetime point guard Maddie Scherr, senior guard Jaiden Douthit and versatile junior forward/guard Brie Crittendon among others. Scherr is committed to play at the University of Oregon.

Highlands comes into the season with some unknowns with the graduation of five seniors including starting guards Zoie Barth and Chloe Jansen. Guard Ashley Hayes and forwards Naya Figg and Hanna Buecker also graduated. They accounted for just more than 54 percent of the team's scoring and 49 percent of the team's rebounding last year. Barth played in the rotation the last six years and finished second in school history with 2,416 career points.

Barth took her talents down the road to NCAA Division III national power Thomas More University and has made an immediate impact earning the Mid-South Conference Women's Basketball Player of the Week. Barth recorded a double-double with 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds to go with four assists, three steals and one block in an 85-50 win over the University of Michigan-Dearborn on Saturday.

But entering her 18th season as head coach, Jaime Walz-Richey and staff have not changed expectations that have seen the Bluebirds succeed over the years. Since Richey became head coach in 2002, Highlands has put up a record of 351-170 with eight district championships and one region runner-up finish in 2013. Richey has always said her biggest job is getting the most out of each player.

"It's just getting them to be more comfortable with their roles," Richey said. "Someone is going to have to handle the ball a lot unlike year's past when we had Zoie and Chloe. Someone is going to have to be the vocal leader out there so we have a lot of unknowns right now. But we're still working on that. But soon, they'll understand them and we'll get going even better than we are right now."

Richey said more things will be known after the scrimmages. The Bluebirds scrimmaged Loveland (Ohio) at Ryle on Saturday and head down to Franklin County this coming Saturday for an 8 p.m. scrimmage.

Things start with two returning starters in senior 5-foot-7-inch guard Piper Macke and junior 5-10 forward Rory O'Hara. Macke averaged nine points per game last year good for second behind Barth and O'Hara was third with just under eight per game. Senior 5-8 guard Maggie Hinegardner started toward the end of last year with senior 5-9 forward Rylee Thomas also making some starts.

"I think it's a lot about team leadership and I think it's a lot about the team atmosphere, which I think is really strong in my opinion," Macke said. "With the younger girls, if they're not as experienced, I think there is a lot of mutual respect that goes on and I think they're willing to take direction and they're willing to learn so I think it will be good."

O'Hara returns for her third season as a starter. She said balance will be a key to success this season. Teams generally succeed when opponents can't concentrate on one or two players.

"We're trying to definitely have a strong post presence because everyone knows we are guard-heavy," O'Hara said. "We're trying to run more people there instead of just me. Everything just works together."

Six other players dressed for varsity last year. They are senior 5-6 center Meghan Walz, junior 5-6 guards Kenzie Nehus, 5-6 Emma Mallery, 5-7 forward Emma Riccobene, sophomore 5-6 guard Anna Greenwell and sophomore 6-0 center CC Shick.

A number of players saw action on the junior varsity and freshman squads that won a lot of games. The Highlands JV finished 23-2 and won the 9th Region JV Tournament and the freshman team finished 12-2. Richey said it is a matter of acclimating those players to varsity game situations such as facing an opposing team's best defender.

"Each day, we come to practice and we try to get better at taking care of the ball, making sure we understand all the offenses, making sure we're going to execute when it's a big time situation," Richey said. "JV level and freshman level is a little bit different when you step out on the varsity level and you're a sophomore going against a senior just getting them used to the varsity competition."

Six other players could make an impact on the varsity level. They are junior 5-0 guard Katelyn Vaught, junior 5-6 forward Kelsey Listerman, sophomore 5-8 center Jasmine Brown, sophomore 5-4 guard Carissa Armstrong and two 5-7 sophomore forwards in Megan Gessner and KJ Toole.

Highlands outscored opponents, 2,114-1,428 for averages of just more than 62 to exactly 42 points per game. The Bluebirds hit 282-of-630 shots for just under 45 percent including 80-of-234 from three-point range for just more than 34 percent. They also made 179-of-247 free throws for just under 73 percent.

Richey believes in the saying of the season being a marathon and not a sprint. Highlands hopes to be playing its best basketball in the postseason as opposed to the season-opener at Scott on Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. The Bluebirds play a schedule similar to last year also playing in the Lexington Catholic Tournament and the annual holiday classic at Conner.

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