On Feb. 13, Highland girls basketball coach Clint Hamilton saw his team’s season come to an end in the Class 3A Regional championship game at Breese Mater Dei.
The Lady Bulldogs saw their hopes of a deep playoff run stopped by host Mater Dei in a loss that was disappointing, but did little to dampen the overall view of what was a fairly successful season on the hardwood.
“We definitely wanted to get past the regional and have a long run and it’s sad that it’s over now but it’s already on to next year,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s first season with the Lady Bulldogs started well as Highland came roaring out of the gate with 10 victories in its first 12 games. The stretch built confidence with the sophomore- and junior-laden club.
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“Being my first year with the girls and kind of learning the system we want to run, it was big to get off to a good start,” Hamilton said. “There was a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence that the kind of stuff we were doing was going to work and was going to pan out at the end.”
Strong scoring balance also helped Highland as the Lady Bulldogs got steady contributions from junior guard Ellie Brown (12.5 points per game), sophomore post Bella LaPorta (9 points per game), junior guard Megan Kronk (7.3 points per game), and senior guard Mae Riffel (7 points per game).
“Ellie, Bella, Mae and even Megan even too were all between 8 and 12 or 13 points a game and they took on quite a bit of the scoring load but we’re a much better team when we’ve got two, three, or four kids that can get double figures every night.”
In regular season tournament play, Highland had success winning the championship in the Salem Tournament in November, a second place finish in the Mascoutah Christmas Tournament and a fourth-place finish in the 33rd annual Highland Tournament in late January.
During the regular season, the Lady Bulldogs also fared well in Mississippi Valley Conference play, going 8-2 and taking second place. Their two losses came at the hands of conference champ Civic Memorial.
“Our conference is good and yeah it was nice to go 8-2 in conference this year and obviously our goal is to win the conference and that’s one (goal) we’re going to check off next year hopefully,” Hamilton said.
Highland closed the regular season on another strong push, winning six straight games from Jan. 24 to Feb. 9.
“I thought we were playing really well going to the postseason,” Hamilton said. “We were starting to score the ball a lot better and defensively, we picked our intensity quite a bit and I thought we were playing some of our best basketball of the year.”
The Lady Bulldogs took down Triad in the regional semifinals at Mater Dei on Feb.13, 60-29. Then on Valentine’s Day, a rematch with Mater Dei loomed in the regional title game, but Highland could not get past the Knights for the second time this season. The Bulldogs’ postseason hopes derailed with a 57-51 defeat.
“At the end of the season I thought we were right where we wanted to be,” Hamilton said. “I can’t complain about the way we finished the year for sure.”
Highland finished the season at 25-8. The Lady Bulldogs will lose seniors Riffel, Emmy Nyquist, and Lexi Taylor to graduation.
Brown, Madison Clarke, Madison Fenton, Taylor Kesner, Ashlyn Klucker, Kronk, LaPorta, Kirsten Taylor, and Liv Wilke are all expected back in the fold for next season to give the Lady Bulldogs depth and some experience.
“We just lose those three seniors, Emmy, Mae, and Lexi, and actually we return quite a bit with three or four starters depending on who’s in the lineup with Megan and Ellie and Ashlyn Klucker being all guards,” Hamilton said.
“Kirsten Taylor. a sophomore, is going to be a junior next year, so we’ve got four guards who all saw a lot of playing time and with Bella, Taylor, and Maddie Clarke, so we’ve got three bigs to go with our guards and a lot of experience at the varsity level coming back with those kids, which is big.”