By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It had been a while since they made it to the successful postseason level of last year’s team.
The Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team finished 26-8 last year. That included its first 36th District championship since 2008 and a spot in the 9th Region title game at the Bank of Kentucky Center at Northern Kentucky University. Highlands beat opponents by an average of about 56-46.
Highlands won the most games in a season since veteran Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey took over in 2002. The Bluebirds are 202-125 entering her 12th season as head coach.
The season ended with a 63-44 defeat to the eventual state runner-up and rival Notre Dame Pandas. But that marked the first time Highlands had been to the region championship game since 2002.
But Highlands graduated six seniors from that team. They are Leah Schaefer, Jesse “Dirt” Daley, Ava Abner, Vanessa Fisse, Emilie Parton and Kelsey Clark. Three are playing college sports at the next level. Schaefer (11 points, 6.5 rebounds) took her talents to nearby Xavier University and Daley (9.9 points, 4.9 rebounds) was to be playing at Thomas More, but may not because of a car accident over the summer. Abner is playing soccer at Arkansas State University.
“The returning girls want more (success),” Richey said. “Now it’s about getting them to understand the hard work needed to put into it. We lost a lot of seniors last year who provided a lot of leadership on and off the court. We’re still trying to find the person that will be the vocal leader on the court and who we can count on when we need points.”
The process starts with two returning sophomore starters in shooting guard Brianna Adler and point guard Haley Coffey. Adler averaged 9.3 points per game last year leading the team in three-pointers made making 55-of-141 for 39 percent.
Highlands shot well as a team last year. The Bluebirds made 657-of-1,580 shots for 41.6 percent, including 170-of-518 three-point attempts for 32.8 percent. They also made 433-of-635 free-throw tries for 68.2 percent and grabbed a total of 1,012 rebounds.
“We all have to step it up,” Adler said. “I think Haley and I have a lot of pressure just because we are returning varsity players and with us being sophomores, I think people expect a lot from us. We have to show them what to do in practice and show them if they’re doing something wrong.”
Highlands expects to pressure the ball all over the court this year. One player the team is counting on to pick things up this year is versatile junior guard/forward Lydia Graves.
“We’re going to have to play fast the whole time so we’re doing a lot of running to stay in shape,” Graves said. “That way we don’t take a play off.”
Junior Alex Combs could play inside or outside. She saw a lot of action in the paint last year along with sophomore McKenzie Leigh. Combs is the leading returning rebounder nabbing 116 last year for an average of 3.4 a game. Junior Kristyn Lukjan could also contribute in the post this year. The key there is staying out of foul trouble.
“I hear they’re going to call a lot of hand checks this year so I have to keep them in front of me and rely on help defense,” Combs said. “The main thing is talking. I’m also not going to get three fouls in the first half.”
Highlands also has a few other guards expected to contribute more on the varsity this year. They are senior Tomi Blanton and junior Whitney Quillen.
“It’s about getting better each day,” Richey said. “They have to push themselves to be in the best shape and know where they need to be at all times.”
Highlands opens the season on Dec. 3 at home against Louisville Sacred Heart. Game time is 7:30 p.m.