The Highland High School girls basketball team lost a handful of quality seniors last year, but a nice core group returns, along with some newer faces, to help bolster the Lady Bulldogs’ fortunes for a successful season this year.
“We have a nice group back and there are a lot of kids that got some minutes last year that are going to benefit us this year, no doubt,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “I like our nucleus and we have been having some real good practices. We’ve got to fine-tune a lot of things but once we develop our continuity, I feel like we’re going to be pretty versatile.”
The Lady Bulldogs boast a roster that features some athleticism and some size.
“We should be able to get out and guard people,” Arbuthnot said. “But we’re going to have to shoot the ball well, we’ll have to play good defense and we’re going to have to blend and mold together as a team. I felt like the whole ball club had a good summer and they came in with great attitudes and good work ethics and as a coach, that is all I can ask for. We have high expectations. ”
The three key returners who got significant minutes last year in helping Highland post a 27-4 overall record and repeat as Mississippi Valley Conference champions with a nearly flawless 9-1 mark are senior Amanda Ponce and juniors Madison Wellen and Alex LaPorta. Another key returner is senior Caitlin Lammers, who figures to crack the starting lineup for the first time after giving quality minutes off the bench a year ago.
Ponce is a four-year varsity member and will be a three-year starter this season. After being the runner-up scorer as a sophomore, Ponce led the team in scoring last year with a 13.8-point scoring average. She is a versatile player who can score from all over the floor, set up her teammates and defend. Ponce ranked first on the squad in 3-pointers (87) and steals (2.89) while also ranking in the top three in rebounding and assists.
In addition to Ponce, Wellen, who is also a good all-around player, and Lammers can also knock down shots from the perimeter and the trio will serve as a starting three-pronged guard attack for the Lady Bulldogs.
“As guard play goes, Wellen is shooting the ball real well for us right now, along with Amanda and Caitlin,” Arbuthnot said.
Joining the guard trio in the starting lineup to give the Lady Bulldogs some bulk and post presence will be LaPorta, whose frame has grown bigger and stronger from last season, and fellow junior Hayley Taylor. Junior Katie Kampwerth will also provide some size off the bench.
Junior guards Alisse Koishor and Abby Melosi have looked good in the early going and have put themselves in position to be in the playing rotation as early options the bench.
Others fighting for varsity playing time will be juniors Breanna Frahm and Elizabeth Meadows, sophomores Lauren Baer, Caitlin Basden and Rece Portell, and freshmen Kate Marti and Emmy Nyquist.
“We have a lot of new players, and a lot of roles to fill from last year,” said Ponce, who recently signed to play her college ball at Maryville University in St. Louis. “I believe we have a strong chemistry on this team, but we are going to have to outwork other teams, there’s no doubt. I’m excited to represent HHS one more time with my fellow teammates.”
Arbuthnot always strongly favors a man-to-man defense and with their athleticism and size, the Lady Bulldogs will incorporate it the majority of the time.
“But if the situation calls for it, we will always be prepared with some type of zone or match-up defense if we need to,” he said. “I’m not strictly a man-to-man person where I am not gong to go out and get us beat. If I have to play a zone, I’ll play a zone. If a team doesn’t shoot the ball real well and they take the ball to the rack real well and they are beating us off the dribble, then we can adjust.”
Even though Highland is the reigning two-time defending MVC champs after sharing it with Civic Memorial two years ago and winning it outright last season, a three-peat is far from a lock. Two-time defending regional champion CM returns the bulk of its talent, as do the much-improved squads of Triad and Mascoutah.
“I know we’ve won the conference the last two years, but it’s going to be a dogfight this year,” Arbuthnot said. “There may be a team that has two or three losses and still wins the conference.”
Arbuthnot would also like to help his team score its first regional title with him at the helm at HHS after coming up short to CM in the title bout the past two seasons.
“We’ve lost the last two years in the championship game to CM and obviously that’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. “But the way the sub-sectional is set up this year we may not even be with CM, so it just depends on how the bracket is set up depending on every game.”
Salem Tournament kicks off season
But first things first, Highland tips off the season Friday at the annual Salem Lady Wildcat Thanksgiving Tournament, where the Lady Bulldogs will be gunning to repeat as tourney champs.
In its three pool games, Highland will first first face Olney East-Richland at 8 p.m. Friday, and that will be followed by a pair of games on Saturday, first against host at noon and then Belleville East at 7 p.m.
“That’s three quality opponents, three quality teams, and CM and T-Town (Teuotpolis) are on the other side (of the bracket) so we’ll see right where we’re at at the beginning,” Arbuthnot said.
Then on Saturday, Nov. 28, the Lady Bulldogs and the rest of the field will return to Salem to play the finals.
“Conference and regionals are always in mind as goals this season,” Ponce said. “But first we are working hard to get a shot at the Salem Tournament as well so we can repeat as champions.”