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Friday, December 18, 2020

Highlands boys basketball building off season to remember

 Bluebirds Set for Another Solid Season

Highlands junior forward Oliver Harris (13) goes after a Dixie Heights player during the 9th Region Tournament last season. The Bluebirds are expecting big things following a 28-4 season last year.

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The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team put together a season to remember last year.

Highlands finished 28-4 winning its first 36th District Tournament championship since 2008, won three in-season tournaments and drove all the way to the 9th Region title game for the first time since 2001. The Bluebirds then battled the three-time region champion Covington Catholic Colonels all the way to the end losing 59-54 at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.

"Really good programs year after year have solid groups. You have some dips and some highs. But the mark of a program is being consistent year after year," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "I think we're getting close to that point. Last year's team and the success it had has certainly encouraged and sparked our guys to work harder, especially our younger guys because they see the opportunity that's in front of them. But they were committed over the last couple years. It is neat to see that come to fruition."

Highlands graduated just three seniors off that team in guards Jacob Brass, Hunter Ahlfeld and post Jack Delagrange. Ahlfeld is playing football at Morehead State and Brass took his football talents to Georgetown College. Ahlfeld averaged nearly 10 points per game.

But the Bluebirds return three starters in the dynamic 6-foot-5-inch senior point guard Sam Vinson, 6-5 senior forward Luke Muller and 6-3 forward Bryson Cody. Vinson will play basketball down the road at Northern Kentucky University next year and Muller committed to play golf at NKU after helping the Bluebirds to a sixth-place finish at the boys golf state tournament in October.

"We're definitely working on getting better," Cody said. "It's a new team this year. We just have to gel together. We don't really have much time before the first game. We're just focused on ourselves first. That's with any team for any sport. When you do that, you don't worry as much about the name on the other jersey. You just go out there and play. That's all we're trying to do right now."

Highlands started practice on time Oct. 15. But the Kentucky High School Athletic Association delayed practices until Dec. 14 in November before allowing games to start on Jan. 4. There will be no scrimmages this year.

Vinson won region player of the year honors after scoring 791 points and nabbing 279 rebounds on his way to averages of 24.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He made a lot of things happen with the ball in his hands.

But teams could not focus on him alone. Muller scored 502 points for an average of 15.7 per game. Muller lead Highlands making 107 three-point shots and Cody played a big role in the post and on the wings.

"The best part of our seniors last year and this is the thing I hope to continue is that they were completely unselfish and they put the team first," Listerman said. "I think our seniors will do that. Luke, Sam, Bryson and Daniel understand what it takes for a team to be successful. They know it takes all of us. They're willing to put that first above individual accomplishments or goals."

Highlands had some size down low. But against taller posts, the Bluebirds held their own on the boards for the most part.

The Bluebirds have four seniors overall. The other one is 6-0 guard Daniel Buchanan. Buchanan played in 18 games last year and is expected to battle for action in the back court.

"Each and every day even if we're not at practice because of COVID, all the guys tell each other constantly to get better. Work on ball handling on your own or lift weights on your own," Buchanan said. "We have a lot of good players who are going to play hard."

Two other guys saw action in all 32 games. They are junior 6-0 guard Zach Barth and junior 6-2 forward Oliver Harris. Barth forced teams to defend him high opening driving lanes for Vinson and others and Harris gave Highlands valuable minutes in the post.

Junior 6-2 forward Cole Kocher saw more time as the season progressed and sophomore 6-0 guard William Herald gave the Bluebirds depth in the back court. Junior guards Abe Hils at 5-10, Austin Duncan at 6-3 along with sophomore 5-11 guard Coby Kramer also saw some action on varsity last season.

The Highlands junior varsity team finished 20-2 last season winning the 9th Region JV Tournament and the freshman team finished 16-7 finishing runner-up in the region freshman tournament. Five players on those teams last year could contribute this year. They are junior 5-10 guard Leyton Read, sophomore 6-0 guards Sam Robinson and Seth Ryan along with 5-10 sophomore guard Adam Dunn. Freshman Brody Benke at 6-3 is listed as the team's lone center.

Highlands plays a mixture of offenses and defenses. Listerman likes an up-tempo game and feels the Bluebirds can play faster this year. 

Highlands outscored opponents, 2,456-1,889 last year for averages of between 76 and 77 points to just more than 59 points per game. The Bluebirds made 870-of-1,755 shots for just under 50 percent including 286-of-705 three-point tries for just below 41 percent. The Bluebirds also made 430-of-587 free throws for more than 73 percent and grabbed 886 rebounds for an average of between 27 and 28 per game.

Highlands can still play 30 games this year. But Listerman said he does not see the Bluebirds playing a full schedule.

"We're still working through a lot of (Coronavirus 2019) protocols to be honest," Listerman said. "I'm not sure how much we'll utilize locker rooms. Practices are different in that we really are maintaining that six-foot distance anytime the kids aren't actively on the floor competing. The benches are obviously going to be different. The biggest thing is I know a lot of people were hoping to get to see us play. We're going to be limited in the capacity in our gym which is unfortunate. But we will be able to livestream all our home games at the JV, freshman and varsity levels so we're pretty excited about that."

The Bluebirds open the season against the defending 16th Region champion Ashland Blazer Tomcats on Jan. 4 in Fort Thomas. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

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