|Highlands hopes to develop younger players|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands freshman Zoie Barth (14) makes a move to the basket in the 9th Region Semifinals last year. Barth could fill in a starting role this year.|
The Ladybirds finished 30-4 winning the most games in a season ever since Jaime Walz-Richey took over as head coach in 2002. They also won the 36th District championship for the second time in three years.
The big thing Highlands could not figure out was the top two teams in the 35th District. The Ladybirds lost tight games to Covington Holmes and Covington Holy Cross during the regular season.
After winning the district tournament, Highlands defeated Boone County, 50-39 in the 9th Region Quaterfinals before losing a second time to Holy Cross, 49-32 in the region semifinals. Holy Cross won the All "A" State Tournament and became the first 9th Region team to ever win the regular state tournament. Highlands has lost in the region semifinals the last two years after losing in the title game in 2013.
Highlands graduated four players from that team in Lydia Graves, Alex Combs, Whitney Quillen and Kristyn Lukjan. Graves and Combs are playing collegiately at Georgetown College and West Virginia Tech respectively and Quillen is playing softball and nearby Thomas More College. Graves averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and Combs averaged 8.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
The Ladybirds do return six players who saw significant time last year beginning with fifth-year starting guard Brianna Adler and fourth-year starting point guard Haley Coffey. Adler led Highlands averaging 11.7 points per game last year. Adler also led the Ladybirds making 78-of-155 three-point shots for just more than 50 percent. Coffey recently returned from wrist surgery.
"This year we have a lot of newer girls," Adler said. "We don't have as deep of a bench as we have in past years. So this year, we have to focus on listening to the coaching staff and our teammates because the seniors know what we're doing because we have been there for as long as you can be pretty much. I just think we need to go out, play focused each game and work hard in practices."
A third returning starter in 6-foot-1-inch senior center/forward McKenzie Leigh also returns. Leigh averaged 10 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last year despite missing some games with an injury. The fourth senior is forward Isabella Schultz.
Freshman guard Zoie Barth and junior forward Kiersten Clukey return after providing Highlands depth last year. But the Ladybirds are inexperienced after that. That is why the staff is focusing on making sure the younger players understand the team's offensive and defensive philosophies. Richey also said rebounding will be vital this year.
"It's a work in progress," Richey said. "I expect a whole different team in January/February after some of the younger girls get more experience playing varsity and we get used to playing with each other."
Three juniors among others are looking to make their mark this year. They are guards Macy Gabbard, Emma Little and forward Lauren Epperson.
"It's going well," Richey said of the team chemistry. "The girls enjoy competing against one another on the court, but they are all friends off the court."
Highlands may not play a game in the newly refurbished gym until either January or February because of construction issues. The Ladybirds will play many home games in the Middle School Gym until then.
Highlands takes on Louisville Sacred Heart on Monday at Newport Central Catholic. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Highlands has a huge incentive to win its first region crown since 2001 this year. The state tournament will be held down the road at Northern Kentucky University's BB&T Center. The 9th Region Tournament has been there for years.