|Bluebirds Lose Nearly 85 percent of Scoring Next Season|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands junior Meg Gessner is a key returning player for the Highlands girls basketball team next season.|
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Highlands Bluebirds head girls basketball coach Jaime Walz-Richey and some assistant coaches watched from the stands after the Highlands boys hoops team captured its first state championship in school history.
Some players such as sophomore point guard Alyssa Harris and forward Kelsey Listerman watched Highlands and Head Coach Kevin Listerman beat Elizabethtown, 79-60 at Rupp Arena on the television in the title game. Their season ended a week earlier on March 27 with a 54-42 loss to eventual 9th Region champion Dixie Heights in the region semifinals at Covington Holmes.
"We're very happy for Kevin and the boys program for their hard work," Richey said. "Their dedication paid off to win a state championship. It's a once in a lifetime memory that will last forever. The girls program works in the same way. We're trying to get there too. It's just going to take special players that are going to put time in. The coaches are here to help and make a commitment to them. We hope it will eventually happen to us, too."
Richey recognized a number of the qualities on the state championship team. Senior point guard Sam Vinson is a Mr. Kentucky Basketball candidate. He has committed to play for Northern Kentucky University down the road.
"A lot of it is the time you put in. Sam Vinson just didn't go to the gym once a week," Richey said. "He lives in a gym. That's what great players do. They find their times to go to the gym. They miss going to the swimming pool in the summer to swim with their friends because they're in the gym working on their craft. So when it comes to big situations in games, they're able to perform."
The Highlands girls still recorded a ninth straight 20-plus win season finishing 20-7 after the team could not meet together over the summer because of the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic. The Bluebirds also won a seventh straight 36th District Tournament championship and continued the 9th Region's longest streak of consecutive region tournament appearances with their 11th in a row.
Highlands played host to a region quarterfinal this year after winning the district championship at Dayton. The Bluebirds knocked off Covington Holy Cross, 59-43 for just their second region quarterfinal win in five seasons.
Highlands graduates five seniors from the team in forwards Rory O'Hara, Kelsey Listerman, Emma Riccobene and guards Emma Mallery and Kate Vaught. That is about 85 percent of the team's scoring. O'Hara will take her talent to the NCAA Division II University of Tampa.
"Jaime, (Assistant coach) Bert (Richey) and the coaching staff as a whole are very creative," Kelsey Listerman said. "They provide the girls with the tools that they need to be able to win not just district, but the region. To be able to go on and win a state championship, I just think the girls have to want it just as bad as they do because if they don't and they don't put in the actual work outside of practice and the team stuff, that goal will never get achieved. I think that's what set a lot of people apart on our team toward the end of the season - who was staying late and who was coming in early to put in those extra hours."
Walz-Richey could not commend the seniors enough for their hard work this season. She said they came to practice and games each day and put other things aside. Walz-Richey said one could not tell if they had a bad day at school.
"You made a commitment to your team. You're here to get better," Walz-Richey said. "You don't worry about other things. I think that's going to be a key for every sport. We're just going to get back to the gym and worry about things we can control. Anything is better than last year because we weren't able to do anything team-wise. As a coach, I'm looking forward to getting my seventh graders and getting my eighth graders into the gym and working on fundamentals and things like that."
Walz-Richey said the hope is to be able to run the youth camp this summer to get younger girls interested in the program. She also hopes to take the returning players to a team camp.
"We're going to spend a lot of time on us getting better individually with skills and understanding the game of basketball," Walz-Richey said. "I think that's going to be a big key for us being able to beat girls one-on-one. Our system has always been that we can run sets. But sometimes in games, the kids are going to have to make plays."
Things start with two-year starting point guard Alyssa Harris. Holy Cross helped off her defensively in the region tournament. Harris said she's learned a lot about mental toughness. She also plays soccer, cross country and runs track and field in the spring.
"Personally, I'm going to be working a lot harder over the summer to make myself more well-rounded," Harris said. "I've really learned a lot from all the outgoing seniors this year. They've just taught me to be a better player on and off the court in every aspect of the game. Having their guidance this year is really going to help me next year be the leader they were for the underclassmen."
Junior guard Meg Gessner had some big games. Junior 6-foot-0-inch center CC Shick also returns, but was not able to play the entire season. Freshman guard and soccer standout Laney Smith and 6-2 eighth grader Marissa Green saw limited action this season. Green's development could give the Bluebirds a size advantage inside next season.
The season did not start until Jan. 4 this year. But under normal circumstances, official practices begin Oct. 15 and the season starts in November.