That first season in 2002-03 that Jaime Walz-Richey took the head coach job for the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team saw her and her staff implement various standards that have allowed them to bring the most out of every player.
Players from that team including then-senior Ashlie Berling-Lyons quickly bought into those expectations and that has continued through the years. The result has been a culture of consistency as the Bluebirds enter Richey's 19th season with the longest streak of appearances in the 9th Region Tournament at 10 years in a row. Dixie Heights is second with nine straight appearances.
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Highlands has put up a record of 372-181 for an average of just more than 20 wins per season. The Bluebirds have won nine 36th District Tournament championships during that time with six straight and seven in the last eight years. Highlands has recorded eight consecutive seasons with 20 or more victories.
The struggles in those first and second-round region tournament games have been well-documented. Highlands finished 21-11 losing 48-44 to Conner in double-overtime in the 9th Region Quarterfinals at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. The Bluebirds have made the region championship once since 2002 losing in the region championship against eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in 2013.
But Richey agreed it will take a special group to push the team over the top. Any coach, especially the longest-tenured head coach at Highlands currently in Richey, will say teams need to be playing well at that time to bring home titles.
"I think if we continue with where we're at pushing ourselves every day in practice, sprinting and running on our own and doing things to help each other, I think we can definitely get past the second round," said Emma Riccobene, Highlands senior 5-foot-6-inch forward. "Experience definitely helps. My first year (as a freshman in 2017-18), I was super, super nervous. It's a big court with bright lights. Every thing is different from playing in a high school gym so we're going to have to calm the nerves of everyone going in."
The Bluebirds graduated four seniors from last year in guards Piper Macke, Maggie Hinegardner, forward Rylee Thomas and center Meghan Walz. In addition, senior Kenzie Nehus and juniors KJ Toole and Anna Greenwell decided not to return this year. Macke led Highlands with 12.2 points per game last year.
But Highlands does return five players who started some last year including Riccobene. It starts with fourth-year 5-10 senior starting forward Rory O'Hara, who is committed to the NCAA Division II University of Tampa (Florida) Spartans. O'Hara averaged seven points per game last year and led the Bluebirds with 4.3 rebounds per game.
"We are super excited just to be able to have a season right now with everything going on and we're expecting to come out, have fun and give it our all," O'Hara said. "We're expecting a good season. We have a lot of experience together still."
Highlands 5-6 senior forward Kelsey Listerman comes back as the team's returning leading scorer. She averaged 9.6 points per game last year making 28-of-82 three-point shots for just more than 34 percent.
The Bluebirds return two other seniors guards in 5-6 Emma Mallery and 5-0 Kate Vaught. Mallery gave Highlands significant time before going down with an injury last year. Sophomore 5-6 guard and four-sport athlete Alyssa Harris also returns after starting at the point guard in all 32 games last year. Richey said more ball-handlers need to step forward in the preseason.
"I think our athletic ability is really high led by Rory and Kelsey," Richey said. "I think those two have worked extremely hard in the off-season. I don't think they've missed a beat since we've started practice. I can't say that for all my girls. I think they've really worked on their basketball skills to be the best players they can be for their senior years."
Richey said the outside shooting looks good so far. But the staff is hoping to develop an inside presence starting with junior left-handed 6-foot center CC Shick. Shick allowed the Bluebirds to defend one-on-one in the paint and scored eight points in a win over Boone County.
But Shick went down for the season with an injury in the 36-35 home loss to Louisville Butler. That unfortunately left Highlands without someone to match up with Conner center Tyra Murphy in the region quarterfinals. Murphy scored 18 points and teammate Maddie Drummonds scored 20 in that overtime win.
"CC had a great game for us last year right before she got hurt so we're looking to get her back in rhythm and get her playing like she was right before she got hurt," Richey said. "Emma Riccobene is a gamer. She played well in big games. Now we're expecting her to play big all the time. Every day, someone seems to step up and have a good practice. That's what we're looking for."
Shick is one of two players listed on the roster at six feet or above. The other is sophomore 6-1 center Carly Cramer. Another listed center is 5-8 junior Jasmine Brown.
Three others could compete for time at guard. They are junior guard Carissa Armstrong at 5-4 and two sophomores in 5-4 Elle Ehrman and 5-7 Ellie Walz.
Two 5-7 forwards round out the roster. They are junior Meg Gessner and sophomore Megan Calme. Gessner saw limited action on varsity last year.
Richey said Highlands has been taking similar protocols regarding Coronavirus 2019. That includes not using locker rooms. Teams are also not allowed to have interscholastic scrimmages this year.
"We encourage the girls to wear a gator mask around their necks. When they're close, put it above their noses," Richey said. "We use hand sanitizer a lot. We get temperatures before every practice. We're constantly cleaning basketball during drills and things like that."
Highlands outscored opponents, 1,719-1,385 last year for averages of between 53 and 54 to just more than 43. The Bluebirds made 601-of-1,456 shots for 41 percent and 197-of-569 three-point shots for between 34 and 35 percent to go with 320-of-454 free throws for between 70 and 71 percent. Highlands also had 796 rebounds for an average of nearly 25 per game. Highlands runs a mixture of offenses and defenses depending on the opponent.
A rise in Coronavirus 2019 cases has made a number of other things about the season unknown. But the first game on the schedule is Nov. 23 at Scott County. Game time is 7:30 p.m.