It is the situation where every team in Kentucky would like to be entering the season.
Defending state champions.
The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team comes into the season hoping for another solid season starting with the return of three starters from last year's 30-4 team that brought home the first state championship in program history in April downing Elizabethtown, 79-60 in the championship game at Rupp Arena. The Bluebirds did it winning four games in three days including a semifinal win over Ashland Blazer (66-50) that same Saturday, April 3 afternoon. Highlands enters the season on a 21-game winning streak.
Teams generally do one of two things the season following a championship. They can continue to do the things that led them to that title and continue to add to the model of consistency or they can continue to revel in the glory of the championship and struggle. The last team to repeat as state champions is Louisville Fairdale in 1991.
The Bluebirds entered practice in October seeking to continue to be at least a 9th Region contender like they have been for the last couple seasons. They beat Conner, 77-67 on March 26, 2021 at Holmes for their first region crown since 2001. Head Coach Kevin Listerman is aware that no team wins the region every year.
"We've got a group that understands what it takes," Listerman said. "That's the culture that we've built over the last several years. It's about coming, putting in the work and knowing that it's part of the process. There's not any complacency or sense of accomplishment or entitlement. We have a lot of guys that are hungry to prove that last year wasn't an accident."
Covington Catholic holds the 9th Region record for most consecutive region championships with five straight between 1967 and 1971. Clay County and Louisville St. Xavier are tied with the most consecutive region titles with seven in a row. Clay County won seven straight 13th Region crowns between 1984 and 1990 and St. Xavier won seven straight 7th Region titles between 1937 and 1943.
Gone are four seniors including two NCAA Division I athletes who took their talents down the road to Northern Kentucky University. Point Guard Sam Vinson averaged 22.3 points and 9.4 rebounds last year. Vinson earned the Gatorade Player of the Year honor for boys basketball in Kentucky to conclude his storied career. He has started the first two games of the year for the Norse men's basketball team.
Forward Luke Muller averaged 16.9 points per game and is playing golf for the Norse. Muller led Highlands making 122-of-266 three-point tries for just under 46 percent last year.
Highlands also saw reserves Daniel Buchanan and Bryson Cody graduate. In addition, senior Abe Hils elected not to come back for his senior year focusing on baseball instead and junior Adam Dunn is not able to play this year as a result of an injury sustained during football season.
The three returning starters are senior 6-foot-2-inch guard Zach Barth, senior 6-3 forward Oliver Harris and junior 6-2 guard Will Herald. Barth may move to the point guard spot after averaging 10.3 points per game last year.
Herald lit up Elizabethtown's 1-3-1 defense from outside in the championship game. He averaged 13.1 points per game last year. Herald made 102-of-192 three-point shots for 53.1 percent.
Harris did a lot of dirty work inside averaging 8.3 points and 3.8 rebounds. Harris is the team's leading returning rebounder.
The Bluebirds used a seven-player rotation for most of the season. Senior 5-10 guard Leyton Read and senior 6-3 forward Cole Kocher gave Highlands quality minutes off the bench. Read had some key steals in the title game against Elizabethtown to help Highlands built the big halftime lead and Kocher had some offensive putbacks in the second half to keep the Panthers at bay.
"We have shooters all around the perimeter," Read said. "It's easy for us to make shots once we drive, opponents collapse and we create shots. We score at will mostly all the time. We have workouts two times a week and practice four times a week. We do sprint work, foot work, running all the time. Our conditioning is there. We're ready to go at all times."
Listerman said he has confidence in all 12 players listed on varsity. He said he could see nine or 10 players playing each games, especially early in the season.
Four reserves return from last year. They are senior 6-3 guard Austin Duncan, junior 6-2 guard Seth Ryan, junior 5-10 guard Coby Kramer and sophomore 6-5 center Brody Benke. Benke may give Highlands a post threat. But the Bluebirds have a lot of versatility.
"If anything, our work in the offseason has gotten more consistent," Duncan said. "We have a lot of assets this year that can come in (and contribute). Even our starters want to come out and show what they have. I think we're going to be a lot deeper this year than we were last year. But we have to keep the same energy up and just have confidence in ourselves."
Three sophomores fill out the roster. They are 6-0 guards Nathan Vinson, Brayden Moeves and 5-9 Cam Giesler.
Highlands averaged 1.27 points per possession last year outscoring opponents 2,802 to 2,145 for averages of just more than 82 to just more than 63. The Bluebirds made 1,046-of-1,925 shots for 54.3 percent including 360-of-458 from three-point range for 76.4 percent. They also had 964 rebounds averaging 28.4 per game.
"We have a very unselfish group and that's just a testament to these kids," Listerman said. "We put a real emphasis on playing fast and getting the shots that we want. They understand turning down good to get great. We talked about that after our scrimmage on (Nov. 13) and they've really taken it to heart this week."
Listerman expressed gratitude the season starts on time this year and more fans will be in the stands. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association delayed the start until January last year and basically parents were the lone people who could attend the games. Some students were allowed to attend during tournament time.
"I know our kids are excited about that," Listerman said. "They certainly deserve the opportunity to play in front of our community and our fans."
Highlands plays a loaded schedule this year. The Bluebirds travel to Marshall County to face the Cane Ridge Ravens from the Nashville (Tennessee) suburb of Antioch and an Alabama commit in 6-8 small forward Brandon Miller before facing the McCracken County Mustangs in a rematch of the state quarterfinal game. Cane Ridge finished state runner-up in Tennessee's largest Class 3A last year.
The Bluebirds also take on 2021 Ohio Division III state semifinalist Taft High from downtown Cincinnati and junior 6-4 shooting guard Reyvon Griffith, who has offers from the University of Cincinnati, Alabama, Kansas, Kansas State, Alabama, Louisville, Ohio State and Oklahoma State among others. Listerman said Huntington Prep (West Virginia) features two four-star and one three-star recruit.
Also on the home schedule is Vestavia Hills, a suburb of Birmingham (Alabama). Vestavia Hills features 6-3 junior point guard Win Miller, who has offers from Auburn, Georgia and Virginia Tech. Also on the schedule are Mason County, Louisville DeSales, Breathitt County, Louisville St. Xavier and Ashland in addition to the region and district opponents.
"We really have a challenging schedule," Listerman said. "So when it comes to tournament time, we will be prepared for whatever anybody in the 9th Region can throw at us."
Highlands opens the season Nov. 30 against Walton-Verona. Game time is 7:30 p.m.