The longest-tenured head coach at Highlands High School said the team did better than many anticipated despite heavy losses to graduation from the 2018-2019 season.
The Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team finished 21-11 this past year and won a sixth straight 36th District title. That marked the eighth straight season of at least 21 or more victories.
The Bluebirds graduated five seniors from the 29-5 squad that lost 42-39 to Dixie Heights in the region semifinals in 2019. That included the program's second all-time career point-scorer in Zoie Barth who finished with 2,416 points.
But it still did not take all the hurt away from the continuous story of the 9th Region Tournament that resulted in another first or second-round exit for the 16th time since Highlands lost 37-33 to Covington Holmes in the 2002 9th Region title game. Jaime Walz-Richey became the head coach of the Bluebirds that off-season.
Highlands lost 48-44 in double overtime to Conner in the region quarterfinals on March 2 at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. That marked the third first-round exit in four seasons with all three losses coming to the 33rd District runner-up.
"I think it's mental and I think it's just putting in the work," Richey said. "I have a lot of multi-sport athletes that play basketball. I don't have many just basketball-solo anymore. It's getting those kids in the gym when they can to get shots up, work on their ball-handling and just understanding the game. I think our coaching staff really tries to get the girls to understand the game and what we're looking for in different situations. It comes that time where the girls play (Amateur Athletic Union hoops) or are getting more touches and getting more game experience because you can't simulate a game in practice until you're really there with the crowd noise and things like that. You can practice it but until the kids are there in crunch time and having to make plays, it's hard to do that."
In the last 18 seasons, Highlands is 8-9 in region quarterfinal games and just 1-7 in semifinal contests. The Bluebirds advanced to the region championship in 2013 before losing 63-44 to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame. The only time the Bluebirds did not make the region tournament came in 2010 with a 55-47 loss to Newport Central Catholic in the district semifinals during the blind draw days.
"There comes a time where we're going to get there, but it's going to take a special group," Richey said. "Each year, I think we have a group to do it. But each year, we get a bad draw or we don't play up to our potential so we just have to continue to work at it. As coaches, we evaluate ourselves each year and figure out what we've got to do better. But the girls work hard every year. They put forth the effort from October to March. I can never fault them for that."
Highlands made the region title game nine straight years between 1994 and 2002 winning it five times including three straight Richey's sophomore, junior and senior years. Highlands finished state runner-up in 1994.
Highlands graduates four seniors from this year in guards Piper Macke, Maggie Hinegardner and forwards Rylee Thomas and Meghan Walz. Macke lead the Bluebirds averaging 12.2 points per game.
But during each off-season, Richey pointed out x-factors. Other players may decide to stop playing basketball.
Injuries did not help the Bluebirds. Sophomore center CC Shick helped out guarding Conner senior posts Tyra Murphy and Maddie Drummonds in the win over the Lady Cougars in Hebron on Feb. 4. But Shick was not able to play in the post-season along with the likes of junior guards Emma Mallery and Kenzie Nehus.
Highlands did see the emergence of junior forward Kelsey Listerman this year. Listerman is the leading returning scorer at just under 10 points per game. Junior Rory O'Hara could also return for her fourth year as a starter and freshman Alyssa Harris started at point guard with sophomore Anna Greenwell also seeing some action there. O'Hara averaged seven points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Junior forward Emma Riccobene also returns with three years of varsity experience.
"I feel that going into this year, we have to be focused every practice," Mallery said. "Every practice counts. Before the first game with (Newport Central Catholic), the practice wasn't focused and that showed in the game (a 50-47 loss). When our mindset changed, that's when we started winning. What we did in practice started showing in the game and we started working as a team."
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Richey and some players do not need to be reminded of the situation they face as well as their opponents. Teams can not get together nor can the players use school facilities or even parks to shoot. Richey even said Highlands may not be able to attend team camps this summer so they're taking things day by day.
But both Listerman and Richey mentioned the app called HomeCourt. Listerman is using it daily attempting to get better her senior year. Richey said some apps are offering lessons for free.
"I find that useful because it pushes me shooting-wise, agility and ball-handling," Listerman said. "That's what I've been trying to do every day making sure that I don't take any days off because this is an important time. Yes, we're missing out on AAU and everything else. But it happens in summer with high school so it's just very important that I make sure I can do what can while I'm stuck inside to be getting better."
Highlands could pull up some players from the junior varsity and freshman teams. The junior varsity finished 18-3 and won the JV region tournament and the freshman team finished 7-8.