It may be a tall order for the Highland High girls basketball team to duplicate last year’s historic season. The Lady Bulldogs won 27 of 28 games en route to notching a school-record 31 victories and bringing home hardware from the state tournament for the first time in school history in the form of the Class 3A third-place trophy.
“To follow up last year’s season is going to be tough, because it obviously was record breaking in many ways and will go down in Highland history as one of the best all time,” said senior guard Madison Wellen, who is the Bulldogs’ returning leading scorer at 12.3 points per game. “This season, we have the same mindset as last year: every day we need to get better. Our goal is to peak during postseason. We want to be playing our best basketball when the time is most important.”
Coach Mike Arbuthnot enters his fourth season after helping the program to not miss a beat en route to winning at least a share of the Mississippi Valley Conference all three years at the helm, punctuated by last year’s record-smashing campaign.
Although he lost one of the best players in program history in Amanda Ponce — who is currently a freshman playing at Maryville University — Arbuthnot likes what he has seen so far in the early going.
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“The kids all came in with great attitudes, had a great summer and they all got a taste of it, ” he said. “Our practices have had a lot of energy and intensity, and the girls are really working hard to make each other better. The keys to our success will be our defensive presence, how we handle and take care of the basketball, and hitting the boards hard. I think all of the coaches and players are looking forward to an another exciting season.”
Leading the way for the Bulldogs will be two-thirds of the dominant trio from last season in seniors Wellen and Alex LaPorta.
“Alex and I are going to be role models for the team this year, and it is convenient that I am a guard and she is a post player,” Wellen said. “We won’t change a thing about our play from last year, except for stepping up more often than last year. We will help guide the other players and especially the younger girls to be as successful in their positions as possible.”
LaPorta is force to be reckoned with in the post both on offense and defense after finishing as one of the top rebounders in the area after cleaning the glass for 11.2 boards a contest to go along with nearly 11 points a game. She also showed off her athleticism by ranking second on the team in steals and third in assists.
And the scary thing for opposing teams is that LaPorta has gotten better and she is being pursued by multiple Division I universities.
“She has improved, and her stock is rising,” Arbuthnot said. “She has improved in her post awareness, with using her body better with her back to the basket, and better with her shot selection and finishing better. Her defensive presence and rebounding were already strong but now she has gotten even stronger on the offensive end in the post.”
Wellen is a quick all-around guard who is deft at shooting from the perimeter, slashing to the basket, creating chances for her teammates, and playing sound defense. In addition to being the team’s runner-up scorer last year at a 12-point clip, she also finished in the top three in assists and steals and fourth in rebounds.
“I am looking for Wellen to step out and have a big breakout year, although she already has been very solid,” Arbuthnot said. “She handles the ball very well and shoots it well. She really has a knack for scoring in multiple ways. With all of the things she does well, I could put her in multiple spots.”
Wellen sounds plenty ready to accept even more of a role of a go-to player.
“I know coach Arb (Arbuthnot) is looking for leaders to step up this year, and I can’t think of something more rewarding than for him to look to me to fill that position,” she said.
Seven could be a very lucky number
Highland is bolstered by the fact that his team this year features seven seniors. In addition to LaPorta and Wellen, Abby Melosi, Hayley Taylor, Katie Kampwerth, Alisse Koishor and Breanna Frahm are all fourth-yeaer members in the program and all of them got key experience and a big taste of last season’s supersonic success.
“We have seven seniors so we have a lot of experience and leadership,” Arbuthnot said. “That’s the group I came in with fourth years ago and I am happy to still have this group with me to lead us into this season.”
Melosi returns to bring her strengths to the backcourt after starting last season before suffering a serious knee injury.
Taylor stands 6-foot-1 and provides solid rebounding in addition to some points in the paint and low-post defense to help complement LaPorta, as does Kampwerth.
Koishor and Frahm bring their skills to a deep and talented backcourt of guards and wing-type players.
“Our strength this year will most definitely be our quickness and our ability to find the open person on the court so quickly,” Wellen said. “Although we have seven seniors, younger players are going to have to step up this year as key players.”
Other key players
Junior Rece Portell brings a big defensive presence to the guard position and is one of the quickest players in the program. She continues to improve upon her offensive game and should be a more important piece of the team puzzle this year right from the outset.
Also figuring in the mix in the backcourt or on the wings are a talented group in junior Lauren Baer, sophomores Emmy Nyquist, Kayla Eads and Mae Riffel, and freshman Ellie Brown.
Nyquist, Baer, Eads and Riffel all got some varsity playing time last year while Brown is a quick point guard who led the Highland Middle School eighth-grade team to the SIJHSAA Class L state title last year.
“I always like to have a team of more balanced scoring,” Arbuthnot said. “We have a lot of depth on our roster, and that is a good strength to have. Our regular rotation should go at least eight or nine deep. I like to have four kids who can step up and be the more go-to players.”
Although LaPorta and Wellen should undoubtedly be the main go-to players and leaders in the clutch, Wellen said it is hard to pinpoint what other individuals will emerge as the other key players, but it will take everybody pulling together.
“Everyone has the ability to step up at any time and I think that is what makes our team special,” she said. “This year is going to be one for the books, just as last year was, and I know I’m not the only one looking forward to starting the games up!”
High expectations again
The goals for this season are understandably set high again, to win the MVC again, win regular-season tournaments, as well as win the regional, sectional, super-sectional and advance to the state tournament for the second straight season.
“Our goals are the same as last year — win conference, regionals, tournaments, go to state, etc. — but to accomplish all of it again, everyone will have to be on board 100 percent when the time comes,” Wellen said.
Highland opens again in the 16th Annual (Salem) Lady Wildcat Thanksgiving Tournament. The Bulldogs will first complete in Pool B on Friday and Saturday. Highland tips off the tourney first against Belleville East at 8 p.m. Friday before going on to face Olney Richland County at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Salem at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Pool A features Civic Memorial, Teutopolis, Althoff and Carlyle.
On Saturday, Nov. 26, all of the teams return to Salem to compete in one-day bracket play to wrap up the tourney. The semifinals will pit the first-place team from Pool A taking on the second-place team from Pool B and the first-place team from Pool B going against the second-place team from Pool A. The champiionship game is slated for 8:30 p.m.
Salem Thanksgiving Tournament
Pool A: Althoff, Carlyle, Civic Memorial, Teutopolis
Pool B: Belleville East, Centralia, Highland, Salem
Thursday, Nov. 17
6:30 p.m. Carlyle vs. Civic Memorial
8 p.m. Salem vs. Centralia
Friday, Nov. 18
6:30 p.m. Althoff vs. Teutopolis
8 p.m. Highland vs. Belleville East
Saturday, Nov. 19
9 a.m. Carlyle vs. Teutopolis
10:30 a.m. Civic Memorial vs. Althoff
12 p.m. Bellevill East vs. Salem
1:30 p.m. Highland vs. Centralia
4 p.m. Althoff vs. Carlyle
5:30 p.m. Teutopolis vs. Civic Memorial
7 p.m. Centralia vs. Belleville East
8:30 p.m. Salem vs. Highland