Highland girls basketball coach Mike Arbuthnot didn’t take long when asked about the last time saw a field as strong the Bulldogs will face this week at the Class 3A Jerseyville Regional.
Then Arbuthnot thought some more.
“The one last year was pretty good,” Arbuthnot said, smiling. “But this one at Jerseyville is very strong. You are going to have three (actually four) teams with 18 or more wins and also a Jerseyville team which is much improved. The team that comes out of this regional would have really earned it.”
The outright Mississippi Valley Conference champions after beating Mascoutah last week, the top-seeded Bulldogs (25-3) will be out to add a regional championship to their list of accomplishments for the season this week at Jerseyville High School. The Bulldogs open play on Tuesday when they take on the winner of the Triad-Jerseyville game at 6 p.m.
Two of four MVC schools in the regional, Triad and Jerseyville play its first round game at 7 p.m. on Monday. Second-seed Civic Memorial takes on third-seed Mater Dei in the second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday with the winners to meet for the regional championship on Thursday at 7 p.m.
But in a tournament where you have Highland (25-3), Civic Memorial (23-6), Mater Dei (18-8), Triad (18-8) and Jerseyville (8-16), it’s anybody’s tournament to win.
Of fhe Bulldogs three losses, one came against Mater Dei (60-45) and another came to Triad (63-55) just two weeks ago.
But Highland with its depth and experience has to be the team to beat. Arbuthnot, who said he had a feeling this team could be special, got confirmation on that when the Bulldogs won the season-opening Salem Tournament and then kept on rolling with 11 straight victories before suffering their first loss of the season to Mater Dei in the quarterfinals of the Mascoutah Holiday Tournament.
“Winning at Salem was good for this group because it just affirmed all the time that we had put in to get ready for the season was paying off,” Arbtuhnot said. “That’s one thing I can say about this gropu is that they come in and work hard everyday. Winning at Salem also gave us some confidence going into the MVC season.”
The Bulldogs have been team without stars. In senior Olivia LaPorta, they have a major NCAA Division I athlete who will play college volleyball at Fordham University and in junior guard Amanda Ponce, the Bulldogs have already gotten interest from NCAA Division I basketball programs.
But for Highland, the name of the game has been chemistry, depth and balance.
Ponce, a feisty 5-9 guard, leads Highland in scoring at 13.8 points, while LaPorta is second at 11.8. But in role players such as Makenzie Kleinman (6.9 ppg.), defensive specialist Bailey Leitschuh (6.5), Emily Vonder Haar (6.3) and Madison Wellen (7.2), the Bulldogs have athletes who are capable of and have stepped up for big nights.
“First of all we have good athletes who have worked hard to become good basketball players. We also have a group of girls who are unselfish, It doesn’t matter who scores the points as long as we are successful,” Arbuthnot said. “We have Amanda and Olivia averaging in double figures. But our leading scorer is averaging 14 a game. We’ve got a bunch of kids who are contributing six to eight points a game every night and helping this team win.
“That’s the way we like it.”
And what Arbuthnot would really like is to have a regional title on Thursday night.
“We’re not looking at that right now. We’re preparing for either Triad or Jerseyville on Tuesday,” Arbuthnot said. “I believe this team can have a nice postseason run but one game at a time.”