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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Walton-Verona Edges Highlands in Shoot-Out, 97-94

Bluebirds Figuring Out Roles in Early Season

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands junior guard Seth Ryan takes the in-bounds pass in the season opener against Walton-Verona.

Nearly eight months after winning the first state championship in school history, the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team knows it has to figure out an identity in various positions.
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Highlands showed it can once again put up a lot of points. But finding ways to stop opponents from scoring will be needed to continue the success enjoyed in recent years. The visiting Walton-Verona Bearcats came to Russell Bridges Gym and edged Highlands, 97-94 Tuesday.

"That's what we're going to do here in the first four, five weeks," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "We have some guys who are going to be in different roles. It's going to be a growing process. Unfortunately, we had a lot of guys sort of in and out this summer so we didn't get a great summer for where we were as a group. Close games are great for us. I'd like for us to handle a couple of situations late in the game better as far as our decision-making."

Both teams put four players in double digits. The three returning starters plus a key back-up from last year's team led the Bluebirds. Senior guard Zach Barth scored an impressive 36 points and junior guard Will Herald scored 23. The other returning starter in senior forward Oliver Harris and senior forward Cole Kocher scored 10 each.

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Highlands had relied on point guard Sam Vinson to make decisions down the stretch. That is one role the Bluebirds are trying to figure out. 

Vinson and Luke Muller - the two starters that graduated from the state championship team - were in attendance. Vinson is starting down the road at Northern Kentucky University and has won two straight Horizon League Freshman of the Week awards and Muller is playing golf for the Norse.

But senior guard Leyton Read and sophomore guard Cam Giesler showed promise. Giesler scored seven points and Read had four. Sophomore center Brody Benke added four. Junior guard Seth Ryan among others helped put the Bluebirds in position to win at the end.

Highlands made 39-of-65 shots for 60 percent including 7-of-21 three-point tries for 33 percent. The Bluebirds also made 9-of-15 free throws for 60 percent and grabbed 26 rebounds. Barth and Kocher grabbed eight each.

Both teams did a lot of attacking the rim and dishing if the shots were not there. Senior guard Brant Smithers led Walton-Verona with 34 points. Senior guard Cameron Christy scored 18 points with junior Carter Krohman making five triples on his way to 15 points. Junior post Ethan Gutman scored 14.

The Bearcats made 36-of-82 shots for 44 percent including 12-of-34 from three-point range for 35 percent and 13-of-17 free throws for 77 percent. Walton-Verona also grabbed 33 rebounds. Sophomore Julian Dixon led the Bearcats with 10.

"A lot of credit to Walton-Verona, (Head) Coach (Mike) Hester, their kids stepped up and made some big-time shots and big-time plays," Listerman said. "A lot of times, games like that don't come down to x's and o's. They come down to simply guys going to get a rebound, going to get a loose ball or making a shot. They made one more play than we did."

Highlands trailed just 28-26 after the first quarter after Barth finished it with a three-point play. The Bluebirds briefly took the lead with 5:53 left in the second quarter when Barth scored in the right post on a nice pass from Read at 34-33.

But the Bearcats took the lead back. They finished the half with a 6-0 run following a Herald triple to go up 57-44.

Highlands battled back in the third quarter. Barth made another three-point play to trim the Walton-Verona advantage to 75-74 after three quarters.

"In the second half, we got back into the game because we controlled the glass,"
Listerman said. "Then we lost control of it for a couple minutes and they made their run, took the lead back. We talked about it in the locker room. Our biggest thing is taking care of the basketball and rebounding because when we get shots, we're going to knock them down. It's a great way to open the season. You had two teams that made shots, played fast. We came up on the short end of it. But there were a lot of great things and a lot of things we can learn."

Read and Barth recorded consecutive steals and scores to put the Bluebirds up 80-76 with 5:31 left in the game. But Smithers made four straight free throws down the stretch to give Walton-Verona the win. The Bluebirds missed two clutch shots in the game's final minute.

The gym had a good crowd unlike what they team endured last year when the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic limited attendance. The students could not attend games until late last year.

"I think people are so excited to be back in the gym,"
Listerman said. "They get to go out and watch games. Our kids certainly fed off the energy. It was awesome to see our student section the way it was. That's what high school sports is supposed to do. It's supposed to unify a community, teach a lot of life lessons. We get to play normal basketball this year. We'll keep getting better."

Highlands plays in the Marshall County Hoopfest on Friday against the Cane Ridge Ravens located on the southeast side of Nashville, Tennessee. Game time is 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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