By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds basketball is receiving virtually no recognition in the preseason.
But that’s fine with the Bluebirds. That often allows teams to sneak up on people and Highlands could be a sleeper in the 9th Region this year.
Highlands last won a district crown in 2008. The Bluebirds’ last of 12 region titles came in 2001. They won it four out of five years between 1997 and 2001.
The Bluebirds are entering their fourth season under head coach Mike Flynn after finishing 10-19 last year. Highlands lost 49-44 to Newport Central Catholic in the 36th District championship and 42-39 to Lloyd Memorial in the 9th Region quarterfinals. The Bluebirds have gone 38-45 under Flynn.
Highlands graduated three starters off last year’s team in Patrick Towles, Carter New and Sam Lewis. Towles led the team in scoring.
But the Bluebirds will field a deep team this year with 19 players listed on the roster. The two returning starters are senior 6-foot-2-inch forward Luke Turner and senior 6-2 guard/forward Bailey Witte. They averaged eight points per game last year.
“The reason I’m enthusiastic is we now have a program where our kids are dedicated and committed to playing in the offseason,” Flynn said. “That’s been a gradual building process. You can see the upgraded skill level we have.”
Highlands has two other seniors on the roster. They are 5-9 guard Karl Hinkel and 6-3 center/forward Jake Gronotte.
“I think our depth is going to help us a lot,” Hinkel said. “A lot of us have been playing together for a long time. We all know how everyone has played.”
Deep teams tend to play up-tempo basketball. That is what the Bluebirds plan to do. They want to use a different number of presses and mostly man-to-man defense with a mixture of zones.
The biggest key to Highlands’ success is how quickly the football players get into basketball shape. About half the team played for the Bluebirds football team that won the Class 4A state championship, 47-0 over Collins at Western Kentucky University on Friday.
“For me, it’s not as hard because I’ve been running, running, running in practice anyway,” Turner said. “It’s definitely a bit of an adjustment because you can’t turn it off. Football is more of a sprint then you get a little break. In basketball, you have to keep going. We’re not taking any day off getting back into it.”
Gronotte said the seniors have different ways of leading. The Bluebirds lost a lot of games in the final stanza last year.
“Myself, Karl and Bailey have been here since October so we’ve been playing together for two months,” Gronotte said. “Luke (Turner) is a natural leader. He comes in and gets everyone pumped up. We need to keep the volume up on the court and play our hearts out every play.”
The seniors said junior 6-1 guard Drew Houliston had a good offseason. Big things are expected from Houliston and 6-6 junior center Nick True. Houliston and True averaged six and four points a game last year.
Witte said the Bluebirds did struggle some against presses last year. But Witte listed some keys to handling pressure. The other guards in juniors Brendan Buten (5-6), Luke Brockett (6-0) and sophomores Jackson Hall (5-8) and Justin Weyer (5-11) could play big roles in bringing the ball up the court. Junior 6-1 Brandon Hergott could also bring the ball up the court as a guard or forward.
“We need to keep pushing the ball,” Witte said. “It’s a matter of not turning the ball over. We want to play our offense toward the middle of the floor and away from the sidelines. The sideline is an extra defender.”
The Bluebirds list six other forwards on the roster. They are juniors Ryan Greene (5-11) and sophomores Josh Watson (5-10), Parker Harris (6-3), Josh Salter (6-2), Jensen Feggins (6-1) and Kenny Ball (6-0). Sophomores Todd Ramey (6-3) and Reilly O’Hara give Highlands depth at the center spot.
Flynn said it normally takes football players a month to get their basketball legs under them. But once this team does, Flynn said it could be an exciting year, especially after December.
“High school basketball is one of the best entertainment values going compared to movies and all that other stuff,” Flynn said. “We’re going to play up and down and be exciting to watch.”
Highlands faces St. Henry at 7:30 p.m. Friday.