Outside of 7-foot-1 senior Michael Torre, the Highland High School boys basketball team lacks height, but the Bulldogs definitely do not not have a shortage in terms of experience.
Highland possesses a wealth of experience with eight returning seniors who were key last season in leading the Bulldogs to their third Mississippi Valley Conference title in four years with an 8-2 league record..
“They have been together for a long time, and they are really starting to talk more in practice now than they did in the past, so we have got to pull together and use each other’s strengths,” said Highland coach Matt Elledge, who begins his fourth season at the helm of the boys basketball program. “We’re still lacking a little bit of height, but we do have height in Michael Torre, who is 7-foot. We’re working on him, trying to get him a little stronger and trying to get him to play at the speed we need him to play. But I think he can help us in certain games. But we’ve got a great backcourt returning. A lot of the kids saw a lot of time last year so hopefully we can pick up where we left off last year.”
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And once again, that backcourt will be the strength of the Bulldogs, especially with the three-pronged attack of seniors Austin Elledge, Brode Portell and Luke Thies.
The 6-foot-1 Austin Elledge, 6-0 Portell and 6-0 Thies are all playmakers who can create shots for themselves, whether from the perimeter or slashing to the bucket, or create chances for their teammates.
Elledge paced the Bulldogs with a 15.7-point scoring average. He also ranked first on the team in 3-pointers (61), free-throw percentage (86.1), steals, blocks and tied for tops in rebounds, while he also finished second in assists.
Thies and Portell were the team’s next two top scorers at 8.8 and 8.5 points per game, respectively. Thies also led the squad in assists.
“We look for Austin, Luke and Brode to carry us and be leaders for us,” Matt Elledge said.
A lot of depth
In addition, seniors Will Michael and senior Chris Dickman return to the fold.
Coach Ellege said Michael joins Elledge, Thies and Portell in bringing quickness to the table, while Michael also will play a big hand in the rebounding department, and Dickman has worked really hard to get stronger and better himself.
Senior Justin Twyford will join Michael in being key on the boards, while senior Will Greenwald is a spunky little player who brings a lot of energy to the floor and can break down a defense by driving to the hole. In the early going, Greenwald has been handling some of the point guard duties. Torre should be able to help alter shots of opposing team as well as contribute on the boards.
Also in the mix are sophomore Stephen Schniers, who brings promise along with him as he steps up to the varsity level this season, sophomore Elliott Prott and freshman Sam LaPorta, who is a gifted young athlete at 6-2, 180 pounds.
Defense is key
Defensive pressure will be key to Highland’s success as the Bulldogs will utilize their defensive pressure to force turnovers and transition those turnovers into an uptempo offense.
“We want to pressure the ball more than we did last year, and we have eight seniors, so we are pretty deep,” Elledge said. “We want to play fast but smart and stay out of foul trouble. We want to use the athleticism we have, with our guards and with Will Michael and the quickness he brings to the table. And I think we have some post players who can get up and down the floor and run with us. Hopefully, that will help also. We’ve got to knock down shots and take the right shots, and if we do that, we should be fine.”
A tough schedule
The Bulldogs will find out a lot about their team right out of the gate as they open with a four-game buzz-saw of a schedule at the Waterloo’s Battling Bulldog Thanksgiving Tournament. Highland opens with Edwardsville at 5 p.m. on Monday. It doesn’t get any easier the next day as the Bulldogs will tackle last year’s Class 3A state runner-up Althoff at 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday. Highland then takes on Carbondale at 4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27 before closing out the round-robin tourney with O’Fallon at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28.
“It’s a very tough tournament for us, and we’re going to find out a lot about ourselves very early on, and I am not saying that we can’t compete because I think we can compete,” Elledge said. “At least we should be able to compete for the majority of the game, and that’s the type of competition I feel we’re going to have to be able to beat if we’re going to be able to go anywhere in the postseason. So this will give us some film to look at and things to work on moving forward.”
The MVC will offer its own challenges, but the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule is nothing short of brutal. In addition to the four tough tests as the season-opening round-robin tourney at Waterloo, Highland hosts Wesclin on Dec. 15, travels to Centralia on Dec. 19, travels to the perennially tough Mater Dei Christmas Tournament Dec. 26-30, hosts Vianney (St. Louis) at the Highland Optimist Shootout on Jan. 9, hosts Teutopolis on Jan. 15, travels to Breese Central on Jan. 30 and hosts Alton Marquette on Feb. 9.
Highland’s team goals this season are to win conference, win 20 games, placing among the top five teams at the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament and win a regional championship.
“Were not going to have any easy games throughout the season so it’s a challenge for the boys, and hopefully we’ll pull together and win some,” Elledge said. “We’re looking forward to the season. The kids are excited, the coaches are excited and hopefully we’ll have enough leadership to accomplish some things this season.”