9th Region, 34th District girls hoops preview: Dixie hopes again to be team to beat

G. Michael Graham
G. Michael Graham
Mike Graham covers sports for LINK nky

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Here is how the 9th Region’s 34th District breaks down ahead of the girls basketball season:

Dixie Heights Colonels

The Dixie Heights Colonels have won the last eight 34th District crowns and has appeared in the 9th Region tournament 11 straight years, second only to Highlands’s twelve in a row.

Last year, the Colonels had to come back from a double-digit deficit in the district championship to beat the Ludlow Panthers, 51-49. They wound up losing 54-42 to eventual state semifinalist Cooper in the regional semifinals.

The Colonels finished 25-8 last year concluding a fifth straight season with at least 21 victories. Dixie Heights is 132-62 since Joel Steczynski took over the program in 2016.

Dixie graduated just one player but it was a big one, 5-10 post Madelyn Lawson. Lawson averaged 16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. She took her talents to Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio.

The returning starters are four guards: seniors Sammy Berman, Reese Smith, and Ella Steczynski, and freshman Coralee Pelfrey. Berman averaged 12.8 points and Smith 11.1 with Steczynski chipping in 8.6 leading the Colonels with 64 three-pointers made.

“I think we’re definitely going to be playing different positions,” Ella Steczynski said. “I’m always shooting a lot. But I’ve also been practicing more in the post so if I have a smaller, weaker defender on me, I’ll know what to do when I’m put in that position. I think everyone needs to know what to do when they’re in certain spots.”

Coach Steczynski said the Colonels will try to push more of an up-tempo game offensively and run a motion offense in the halfcourt with an emphasis on ball and player movement looking for good shots. Dixie Heights plans to play a traditional, more aggressive man-to-man high-pressure defense.

The Colonels return a number of players to give them depth including junior forward Abby Thelen. Four guards round out the rotation with junior Jalynn Brooks, sophomore Bella Crawford, sophomore Catherine Buddenberg, and freshman Aubrey Elkins. Buddenberg is nursing an injury, but is expected back in a few weeks.

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“I like the way that they’re playing defense,” Coach Steczynski said. “We’ve had a couple strong defenders in the past. Now as a group, they are trying to eliminate the easy buckets and really make people work for it from the time they catch the ball. We’ve told people we’ll play as many as our defense allows us to. Right now, it’s nine. We feel pretty good about that.”

Dixie Heights outscored opponents, 2051-1440 last year and grabbed 873 rebounds.

The first game is Nov. 29 at Highlands at 7:30 p.m.

Ludlow Panthers

The Panthers finished 25-11 last year losing 55-42 to Newport Central Catholic in the regional quarterfinals in their fourth straight 9th Region tournament appearance. Ludlow saw head coach Aaron Stamm take the Ludlow boys head coaching position and the administration promoted assistant Blake Clary to head coach of the girls program.

“Some days are better than others,” Clary said of recent practices. “You’re dealing with high school kids. But that’s one of the things we’ve been trying to harp on. When they’re energy is good, we have really good practices. We’re trying to bring it and get better every day.”

Ludlow graduated prolific scorer Jenna Lillard, who took her talents to defending National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics champion Thomas More after scoring 2,008 career points. Lillard averaged 22.7 points per game last year and 11.6 rebounds.

The leading returning starter for Ludlow is senior point guard Mylee Garrett. She averaged 11.3 points per game last year and is entering her sixth season as a starter. The other three returning starters are junior twin sister guards Olivia and Prestyn King, and junior forward Ava Hoffmeister. Two others round out the rotation, senior forward Makiah Pence and freshman guard Addy Garrett.

“I like how well we work together,” Pence said. “We’ve been good at communicating. (Mylee) and I give (the underclassmen) good words of advice and help them out on the court.”

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Clary said the Panthers plan to employ an up-tempo offense with a five-out halfcourt style emphasizing motion and movement without the ball. Ludlow will play a man-to-man defense with a mixture of full court and zone presses.

Ludlow outscored opponents, 1721-1272 last year and grabbed 1003 rebounds.

The first game is Dec. 1 at home against Grant County. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

St. Henry Crusaders

The Crusaders finished 16-14 last year, losing 57-44 to Ludlow in the 34th District semifinals at Ludlow.

St. Henry graduated three seniors but the three leading scorers and rebounders from last year return, junior guard Kayla Unkraut, senior forward/guard Chilota Iloegbunam, and junior center/forward Taylor Hill. Unkraut averaged just below 13 points per game.

“The part I love about this group is just how hard-nosed they are,” said Todd Smart, St. Henry head coach. “We’ve got experience coming back this year. That will make a difference this year. It’s the first time we’ve really had that during my time as head coach. I’m entering my fourth year. We have a loaded junior class with nine kids that have played together in our system for several years now. We really want to complement Chilota, who’s been here since she was an eighth grader.”

Four juniors round out the rotation, point guard Josie Knollman, guard Sydney Bollman, forward Aubrey Logan, and center/forward Mia Ryan.

“For us to have success, we definitely have to come together as a team and support each other,” Unkraut said. “Everyone has talent. Everyone can do something great. But when we cheer each other on, that’s when the talent really comes out.”

The Crusaders outscored opponents, 1428-1342 and grabbed 825 rebounds.

St. Henry plays at Grant County on Nov. 28. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

Villa Madonna Vikings

The Vikings struggled last year, finishing 4-23, and losing 61-27 to Lloyd Memorial in the first round of the district tournament.

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Villa graduated three seniors but three starters return, junior Maddie Mitchell, senior Sydney Agriesti, and sophomore Megan Mahaney. Head Coach Katie Kortekamp said sophomore Kate Gibbs will surprise opponents with her growth as a player in the offseason, and said sophomore Annie Chadwick among others will make an immediate impact.

“We are so young and very small so it’ll be a lot of trial and error for us this season,” Kortekamp said. “With a small team, obviously rebounding will be a concern so it’s important after a great defensive stop, we finish it off with a nice box out and rebound. Our region is very competitive and we struggled against many of the teams last season. We have a great group of girls this year and I’m excited about the future of our program.” 

Kortekamp said the big goal is to get a lot of transition buckets and attack the basket in the half-court attempting not to pass up scoring opportunities. She said the scrappy Vikings will throw a lot of different looks at opponents

Opponents outscored Villa Madonna, 1259-694 and the Vikings grabbed 543 total rebounds.

Villa Madonna opens the season Nov. 29 against Gallatin County at 7 p.m.

Lloyd Memorial Juggernauts

The Juggernauts finished 15-14 last year, losing 59-35 to Dixie Heights in the district semifinals. They graduated three seniors from that team and saw several players transfer out in the offseason.

Lloyd returns junior guard Sierra McCoin, who averaged 12 points per game last year.

The current roster on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association website lists one senior, guard McKenzie Runion and three other juniors. Sophomore forward Brooklyn Auclerc and freshman guard Ava Schweri gave the Juggernauts significant varsity experience last year.

Lloyd outscored opponents, 1,444-1,316 and grabbed 799 rebounds.

Lloyd opens the season Nov. 30 at home against Holy Cross. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

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