After back-to-back historic seasons, this year’s Highland basketball Lady Bulldogs may look a bit different, but the goals for success remain the same.
Highland may not feature the same star power as the past two years, like Amanda Ponce (Maryville University), Alex LaPorta (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Madison Wellen, which two years ago helped steer the program to a school record for wins (31) in a single season while also bringing home the first state trophy in program history after taking third place in Class 3A.
Last year, the Lady Bulldogs reeled off a school-record 21 wins in a row and finished 29-4, which tied the 2007-08 squad for the second most wins in program history, while also clinching at least a share of the Mississippi Valley Conference for the fourth year in a row.
“Of course, conference and regional titles are our goals. We work well together, and this season might be different but successful, still,” said senior guard Rece Portell, who along with sophomore Ellie Brown are the only two starters to return from last year’s team that also repeated as regional champions.
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Under coach Mike Arbuthnot, Highland had the two best seasons in school history. Arbuthnot has also guided HHS to become a four conference championships and two-time regional titles.
“Our goals don’t change. We just have to make sure that we put the time and the effort in to deserve any accolades or any good results that we get,” Arbuthnot said. “Since I’ve been here, I have been very blessed to have four really good years and the kids have been fantastic.”
And this year will be no different. Abuthnot said the team had a good summer, with players dedicating themselves in the over the break. Many the girls went also played a fall sport, and collectively, tasted a lot of success in volleyball, cross country and golf.
“Those are the fun things I like to see, and now we’re ready to go,” Arbuthnot said.
Arbuthnot said there will be a few differences from the recent seasons in that this team will be be more reliant on speed and a full-court pressure defense.
“We are obviously going to try and get the ball and go,” he said. “We will be developing our post players. We are going to be scrappy, and we are going to play 84 feet. I would say we are going to try and pressure our opponents all over the floor, try to turn them over, and try to do things a little differently by getting a little quicker shots earlier in the offense. We’re going through a learning curve in trying to understand the concept of that offense.”
Arbuthnot said, for his team to be effective and successful with an up-tempo offensive brand of basketball, they will have to create turnovers and be able to control the boards.
Arbuthnot said he thinks this year’s team could be similar, offensively, to two years ago in that there are numerous scoring options and the team should feature a balanced attack.
“On any given night, I think we have six or seven people who could lead us in scoring,” he said. “Last year, Alex (LaPorta) or Madison (Wellen) — one of those two — was going to lead us in scoring 95 percent of the time. This year, the scoring is going to be a little more spread out.”
Arbuthnot said the team this season is going to feature what he calls “position-less basketball.”
“A lot of the times, we’re going to have five out, and Ellie Brown might be in the right corner on one play, and the next time, she might be on the left wing,” he said. “I am hoping that, being position-less and not so predictable, we will be able utilize the kids’ strengths.
“And our strengths are our quickness and our effort, because we will play hard, and I think we will be able to shoot the ball well.”
Portell and Lauren Baer are the only two seniors on the team. Portell is a quick and feisty guard whose biggest asset is being a tenacious ball-hawking defender. Baer is a swing player who is also capable of playing the post.
“Lauren and Rece have shown real good leadership,” Arbuthnot said. “They have come in in good shape and are doing some good things.”
Baer said she and Portell have taken it on themselves to be the leaders on the team.
“We understand how Coach Arb runs things, and we know what is expected of us. I️ think that we are going to have players stepping up from every grade this year,” Baer said.
While in the past opposing teams might have prepared for one or two HHS players, this year they will have to prepare for at least five, if not more, Portell said.
“Every player in our program is strong and has different assets to help the team out,” Portell said. “I️ definitely think we could be described as ‘scrappy.’ But that’s definitely a good thing to have. We will be aggressive and quick.”
Rest of squad
Emmy Nyquist, Mae Riffel, Kayla Eads and Lexi Taylor are the four juniors who return.
“That’s a good junior group,” Arbuthnot said.
The four sophomores who won the Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association Class L state title as eighth-graders at Highland Middle School are led by play-making point guard Ellie Brown. Joining her as second-year players in the program are Megan Kronk, Ashlyn Klucker and Madison Clarke.
Two freshmen, Bella LaPorta and Taylor Kesner, will be dressing varsity and the first-year duo will be developing post players along with Baer, Taylor and Clarke. LaPorta is the youngest of four talented siblings behind Olivia, Alex and Sam. Olivia is playing volleyball at Fordham University. Alex is playing basketball at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Sam is already receiving Division I offers in football while starring as a junior for the Bulldogs.
“I️ think those two are going to be a great addition to the team, especially size-wise,” Baer said of Bella LaPorta and Kesner. “We do not have much height this year, but what we lack in height, we can make up with speed. I️ believe that every game we are going to have a different person stepping up every time. One game it might be Ellie (Brown) scoring the most points, and the next it might be Rece (Portell) or Emmy (Nyquist).”
Tipping off the season
Highland opens the season at the Salem Thanksgiving Tournament. And although the format has changed from an eight-team tournament format to a six-team round-robin, the Lady Bulldogs are guaranteed to get five games.
Highland opens with Centralia at 6 p.m. on Thursday before playing two on Saturday against Carterville at 12:30 p.m., and Althoff at 5:30 p.m. Then to wrap it up, the Lady Bulldogs will return Saturday, Nov. 25 to take on Tuetopolis at 2 p.m., and host Salem at 8 p.m.
Highland opens Mississippi Valley Conference play on Nov. 30 at Triad before hosting its home opener against Jerseyville on Dec. 4.