G. Michael Graham Photos. Above, Highlands post Jesse "Dirt" Daley (24) and Vanessa Fisse (15) get down in defensive position in a recent game against Simon Kenton. Below, Newport Central Catholic guard Zach Pangallo (11) brings the ball up-court in the All "A" State Tournament while Jake Schulte (33) gets in position. Both teams drew Covington Holmes to open the 9th Region Tournament.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
COVINGTON – The 9th Region basketball draw worked out well for one 36th District champion and not so well for the other in terms of overall matchups.
Both the Highlands Bluebirds girls (24-7) and Newport Central Catholic boys (28-2) basketball teams drew the respective teams from Covington Holmes in Saturday’s draw held at Covington Holmes. The tournament will again be held at Northern Kentucky University’s Bank of Kentucky Center.
The blind draw pitted the four district champions against the four district runners-up in the first round. District opponents went to different sides of the bracket.
Both Holmes teams finished as 35th District runners-up. The injury-riddled Lady Bulldogs (13-17) lost to Notre Dame, 58-37 and the Bulldogs fell 73-72 to the Covington Catholic Colonels when Colonel junior Nick Ruthsatz hit a half-court three-pointer as time expired.
Highlands handled visiting Holmes, 76-60 on Jan. 31 during its eight-game winning streak. The Bluebirds have won 13 of their last 14 contests on their way to their first district championship since back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008. The teams meet at 8 p.m. Friday.
On the other side, NewCath ventured across the Licking River to face then-25-0 Holmes and outlasted the Bulldogs, 88-85 in double overtime on Feb. 8. The Thoroughbreds have won 18 in a row. The teams meet Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
The Lady Bulldogs have won just two of their last eight contests. Head coach Scott Calcaterra said nine of his 19 players in the program have suffered injuries this year, including two injuries. Senior Tamra Holder went down against Holy Cross in the 35th Semifinals. Teammates Amanda Johnson and Deja Turner have also sat out with injuries at times this year. But Highlands will prepare for them as if Holder is going to play.
“You always want to prepare for the best they’re going to offer,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands head coach. “Turner is an outstanding guard that can really shoot the moment she comes into the gym so we have to be aware of her. We just have to be ready to go on Friday.”
Calcaterra knows he will have “a lot of sleepless nights” preparing Holmes for the deepest team in the region. The Senior Twin Towers in Jesse “Dirt” Daley and Leah Schaefer lead the way along with Brianna Adler. But other players like Ava Abner, Vanessa Fisse, Emilie Parton, Haley Coffey, Alex Combs, Lydia Graves and McKenzie Leigh have found ways to contribute this year.
Calcaterra jokingly said he may try to play stall ball the way Highlands did against Notre Dame last year in the first round of the tournament in a 13-8 defeat. But he admitted the players would not have the patience for that.
“We’ll watch a lot of game film from the time we played,” Calcaterra said. “I’ll have to really sit down and try to figure out a strategy. We’re hoping we can build off last year with the experience of getting to the regional tournament and play with a little bit of confidence. It’s going to boil down to playing better defense for us.”
NewCath has been receiving teams’ best shots and expects nothing different in the tournament with Holmes. The Thoroughbreds have made the last two regional championships before losing close games to Boone County last year and Dixie Heights two years ago.
NewCath is the favorite because of its size. The All “A” State Champions start 6-foot-5-inch Nick Seibert, 6-6 Drew McDonald and 6-8 Jake Schulte and bring 6-4 Ben Weyer off the bench. But guards Micheael Bueter, Zach Pangallo, Colin Dupont and Brennan Devoto need to hit crucial outside shots to keep teams from collapsing on the tall players.
“We’re going to have to play to our identity like we have been all year,” said Grant Brannen, NewCath head coach. “We haven’t been shooting well lately and we’ll have to guard well. To win it, we’ll have to go through three really tough teams.”
Holmes (28-2) will counter with its quickness led by sophomore James Bolden. The Thoroughbreds need to keep Bolden out of the middle. He likes to drive and either shoot or dish off to wide-open teammates when opponents slide into the lane to teammates like Daquan Palmer and Rashawn Coston.
“You’re talking about two Top 10 teams in the state,” Brannen said. “It wasn’t the ideal draw. But you’re eventually going to have to face (the Bulldogs) anyway. It is a tough draw, but you have to go with it. That’s the great thing about the season. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Not only did Highlands avoid favorite Notre Dame (23-5) in the first two round of the tournament, the Bluebirds also managed to avoid a possible second-round matchup with the Boone County Lady Rebels (17-11). Boone County and veteran head coach Nell Fookes have won three of the last four region crowns and five of the previous nine.
Highlands did manage to knock off Boone County twice, including a 61-35 domination in Florence on Jan. 16. But teams still know they’re up against a veteran head coach in Fookes, who knows how to pull off magic in the postseason. In a down year after the graduation of current Florida Gator Sydney Moss, Boone County still won the 33rd District as a four seed.
Highlands finished 14-2 in region play, including 8-1 against the rest of the field. The two losses came to Notre Dame, 63-48 on Jan. 8 and Newport Central Catholic, 56-54 on Jan. 4. Notre Dame finished undefeated in region play at 13-0. The Pandas have won 12 in a row. The Bluebirds avenged the loss to NewCath in the 36th Semifinals, 48-40.
A win over Holmes pits the Bluebirds against either Dixie Heights (16-15) or Ryle (11-18). Highlands beat both teams by a combined 64 points during the regular season. Former Highlands and Xavier standout Tara Boothe-Smith coached Dixie Heights to its first 34th District title since 2008 in her second year as head coach after serving as an assistant at Highlands.
“It’s really exciting for me and the kids on the team,” Smith said. “They’ve worked their butts off to have that opportunity.”
Smith would not look beyond Ryle. But a second-round matchup would match the top two career scoring leaders in Highlands girls hoops history against each other for the third time. That semifinal game takes place Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The championship game is Monday at 7 p.m.
On the other side, the Thoroughbreds finished 18-1 in region play. Their lone loss came 50-48 to Covington Catholic on The Hill on Jan. 10.
If NewCath survives the battle against Holmes, the Thoroughbreds will face either Cooper (23-5) or St. Henry (10-15) in the semifinals at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The title game is 6 p.m. Sunday.
The Thoroughbreds did manage to avoid facing two of the best players in the region in the first two rounds. Dixie Heights (17-13) features junior 2,000-point career scorer Brandon Hatton and Covington Catholic (25-6) features Ruthsatz.
Both teams will be playing on a large floor. The teams will see a lot of space behind the baskets unlike normal high school gyms.
“It shouldn’t bother shooters because all shooters have one spot they look at when they shoot,” Richey said. “They may need to make some adjustments in warm-ups. But after that, they should be good to go.”
Both teams are looking for their first region crowns in quite some time. Highlands last won the region in 2001 and NewCath last won the title in 2000.