Amanda Ponce has always taken pride in being a leader on the basketball court.
And so when Highland graduated four starters from its 2014-15 team which finished 27-4, it was Ponce who quickly stepped into the role as the unquestioned leader of the Bulldogs squad heading into the start of preseason workouts last November.
“It’s always been in my heart to be a leader. Ever since I was little, my parents have always instilled me that being a leader is vital to being a success in life,” Ponce said. “It was different this year for me because Emily (Vonder Haar) graduated after we had played together for three years and we lost four other seniors from that team.”
“But I was excited about this year. It was something new and early on I would tell that this team had great chemistry and that everyone really got along well. There was very little drama this year.”
At least off the court. On the court, the Bulldogs 2015-16 season was full of drama.
From beating the top-ranked Class 2A team in the state — Breese Central — in a dramatic finish at the Mascoutah Invitational Tournament in December to a pair of close games with Mississippi Valley Conference co-champion Triad to a dramatic double-overtime loss to Chicago North Lawndale in the semifinals of the Class 3A state girls tournament, the Highland girls basketball season was without question dramatic, exciting and the most successful in school history.
And it was the 5-foot-9 Ponce who led the way.
The Bulldogs top scorer for the second straight season (13.6 ppg.), Ponce led Highland to a record of 31-5 and with a 62-51 win over Chicago Morgan Park in the third-place game at the state tournament, concluded her high school career as one of the best ever to proudly wear a Highland Bulldogs uniform.
After being named the Belleville News-Democrat’s Class 3A-4A Player of the Year, Ponce said the last four years have gone quickly, too quickly.
“It’s gone by fast. You come in as a freshman and the next thing you know, four years have gone by and you’re a senior,” Ponce said. “In one respect I’m sad because the thing I’ve enjoyed the most in high school is playing basketball. But I’m also excited about college and playing college basketball at Maryville University. I’m excited about the future.
Ponce concluded her career with with 1,328 points. A three time all-MVC first team selection, Ponce also averaged 3.5 assists, 3.5 steals and four rebounds per game for her career as she helped Highland to an 80-19 record the past three years.
Preparing for the season
Highland finished 27-4 and won the MVC title in last year. But under the capable leadership of coach Mike Arbuthnot, Highland faced a bit of a reloading job heading into the off season and start of the year in late November.
Fortunatly for Arbuthnot, the Bulldogs did have players such as juniors Madison Wellen and Alex LaPorta returning who saw playing time the previous season.
And he had Ponce back to lead the way.
“Amanda is a very special player and person. She is as good as person as she is a player as well as a team leader and also a program leader,” Arbuthnot said. “Every year she had a different role and she filled those roles great. This year she really took over the leadership role and did a great job. Come playoff time this year she really wanted to win the regional, sectional and supersectional and made so many great plays down the stretch of all of those big ball games.
“She is a complete player and a winner. Maryville is really getting a super young lady.’’
With her new role as a leader, Ponce also worked hard on her game in the offseason, especially on the defensive end of the court.
“A lot of playing good defense has to do with hustle and desire,” Ponce said. “I knew if I wanted to become a complete player that I needed to work on my defense. But I also worked on handling the basketball and my shooting.”
Getting on a roll
Despite the fact that Highland lost several players from its 27-win team, expectations were high heading into this year. The Bulldogs however stumbled out of the gate, losing twice at the Salem Thanksgiving Tournament and were just 3-3 after six games.
“I think we thought we would be pretty good. But 3-3 after six games? It was probably a wakeup call. We didn’t want it to be one of those years where we would be right around the .500 mark,” Ponce said. “But we did lose several players from the previous season. I think it just took us a few games to get used to playing with each other.”
After losing at Triad (63-58) to start then MVC season, the Bulldogs ran off a 14-game winning streak which didn’t end until they lost to Belleville West 47-41 at the Highland Tournament. Included among that streak were a pair of wins against state power Central.
“I always enjoyed playing against Central,” Ponce said. “I’ve played with and against Kendra (Wilken), Carly Albers and Breanne (Jansen). In fact Breanne and I are going to be roommates at Maryville (University).”
A memorable postseason
The Bulldogs postseason culminated with the first trip to the state tournament in school history. With Ponce leading the way, Highland earned a trip to the Class 3A state finals at Redbird Arena by beating Lincoln in the super-sectional.
But after staging a memorable comeback, Highland fell to North Lawndale 59-57 in double overtime in the semifinals.
“That was a real heartbreaker,” Ponce said. “Looking back now, I wish we would have gotten a chance to play Morton. The two teams we played (North Lawndale and Morgan Park) were both great teams. But they play a style of game that we’re not used to down here. I’m not saying we would have beaten Morton. But we were similar teams in the way we played.”
Morton defeated North Lawndale 58-41 in the state title game.
Ponce will graduate from Highland next month, then work out and play basketball this summer to get ready to begin her collegiate career which will begin in August when classes begin at Maryville.
An NCAA Division II school, Maryville has struggled in recent years.
“I’m hoping it’s a program that’s on the rise. We’ve got six new recruits coming in this year,” Ponce said. “I’m working out trying to get stronger and this summer, I plan to just work on my entire game.”
Belleville News-Democrat Class 3A-4A Girls All-Area Basketball Team
Player of the Year
Amanda Ponce, Highland, sr.
Coach of the Year
Mike Arbuthnot, Highland
Lajarvia Brown, Alton, sr.
Sophie Thompson, Triad, sr.
Makenzie Silvey, Edwardsville, jr.
Allie Troeckler, Civic Memorial, jr.
Rachel Pranger, Edwardsville, soph.
Addaya Moore, Granite City, jr.
Alex LaPorta, Highland, jr.
Kaylah Rainey, Belleville East, frosh.
Chamya Darough, Belleville West, frosh.
Marta Durk, O’Fallon, jr.
Kaitlyn Fischer, Collinsville, jr.
Kate Martin, Edwardsville, soph.
Criste’on Waters, Edwardsville, jr.
Abby Burroughs, Triad, sr.
Madison Wellen, Highland, jr.
Celeste Akoro, O’Fallon; Becca Althoff, O’Fallon; Ellisha Davis, Belleville East; Kalli Farmer, Columbia; Kathryn Finnerty, WAterloo; Tennaye Green, Mascoutah; Erika Harvey, Belleville West; Myriah Haywood, Belleville East; Raynesha Lewis, Cahokia; Janesha Munson, East St. Louis; Maddie Nekola, Mascoutah; Kassidy Smith, Collinsville; Morgan St. James, Belleville East; Rokelle Stanley, East St. Louis; Mackenzie Thurston, Jerseyville; Sydney Thurwalker, Belleville West; Katelyn Turbyfill, Civic Memorial; Julia Whitworth, Freeburg; Sam Woods, Triad