9th Region, 33rd District girls hoops preview: Another tight battle for a title expected

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

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The four teams that make up the 9th Region’s 33rd District in girls basketball are all part of Boone County Schools, and it’s one of the toughest districts in the state. It produced a 2019 state title for Ryle, and a 2022 state semifinal showing from Cooper.

Ryle, Cooper, Conner, and Boone County will tough it out against each other again this year.

Cooper Jaguars

The Jaguars not only won their first district crown in program history, but also their first 9th Region championship last season. They finished 25-10 winning their last five games of the regular season then proceeding to drive all the way to the state semifinals losing 50-29 to eventual state champion Louisville Sacred Heart.

“Last year was very special for our program and four our group,” said Justin Holthaus, Cooper head coach. “We talked all offseason about how that target on your chest is a lot bigger this year. Our girls understand that. The practices over the last six, seven weeks have been very intense. The girls are excited about it.”

The only player to graduate from that team was starting guard Jesse Palmer making the expectations high this season. Four starters return including the dynamic 6-2 forward Whitney Lind, who has committed to Leigh University in Pennsylvania. The other three are senior guard Kay Freihofer, her sister, junior guard Liz Freihofer, and junior forward Logan Palmer. Lind, Palmer and Liz Freihofer averaged 16.7, 10.5 and 10.4 points per game and Kay Freihofer averaged 9.2. Lind also averaged 6.4 rebounds per game.

In the offseason, Cooper added junior Damysia Knox, a transfer from Cincinnati Gamble Montessori, who has an offer from the University of Dayton. Three players that saw extensive playing time on varsity last year also return: senior guard Maleah Alexander, 6-1 junior forward Bella Deere, and eighth grade guard Haylee Noel. Holthaus also said to expect some things from guard Zene Thompson.

“We know what we did last year. But at the same time, we’re like, ‘We have to start from the bottom and work our way up to where we are,” Kay Freihofer said. “It is going to be awesome because I feel like we’ve developed a lot of depth. Everyone has gotten better. We are still pushing forward.”

The Jaguars played tough man-to-man defense to power their way to state and plan to do so again this year. They want to push the tempo offensively playing a motion, four-out, one-in offense in the halfcourt.

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Cooper opens the season Nov. 30 at home against Dixie Heights. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

Ryle senior 6-0 guard Abby Holtman gets in position during a recent scrimmage. Holtman averaged 15 points per game for the Raiders last year. The Raiders are 14-3 in the 9th Region Tournament the last seven years with three championships and a state title in 2019. Photo by G. Michael Graham | LINK nky

Ryle Raiders

Since Katie Haitz took over the program in 2015, the Raiders have become the standard in the 9th Region going 14-3 in region play with five appearances in the region championship game, three straight region championships from 2018 to 2020, and a state championship in 2019.

The Raiders are motivated to take back both the district and region crowns after Cooper ended their season 53-45 in the regional championship game last year. Only senior guard Lele Nguyen graduated from last year’s 21-10 squad.

Ryle hopes to use its size and length to mix things up offensively and defensively. The Raiders like to play up-tempo offensively and create havoc on defense pressuring opponents all over the floor.

Four of the five returning starters stand 5-10 and taller. Senior Abby Holtman, a 6-0 guard and University of Cincinnati commit, returns after leading the Raiders at 15 points per game, and junior forward Quinn Eubank, at 5-11, comes back after averaging 13 points and a team-high 9.8 rebounds per game. A third returning starter, 5-10 guard Austin Johnson, averaged 12.2 points per game. Johnson is committed to play at North Greenville University in South Carolina.

“We always have a big standard at practice that we’re always going to compete at a high level regardless if we’re getting ready for a game or we know we have a full week of practice,” Johnson said. “We honestly spend a lot of time picking up our intensity on defense. That’s kind of been one of our big focuses and overall improving our individual games will help the team in the end. I feel like everyone has bought into and done that this season. So I think we’re prepared to have a lot of fun and hopefully win a lot of games.”

Junior 6-2 center Sarah Baker gives the Raiders a huge post presence after averaging 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. The other returning starter is senior guard Meredith Snider, who did a lot of the small things for Ryle last year.

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“They play very well together,” Haitz said. “They’re excited to start the year off. The experience, the knowledge of how the play and they understand each others’ strengths. Being able to move the ball inside and out is always an advantage. Sarah is definitely a threat inside the paint. Having outside shooters and people able to drive just really opens the floor up so much.”

The Raiders are looking a number of others to help with depth. That includes senior guard Emerson Fong, junior guard Gracie Carrigan, and freshman small forward Jaelyn Jones.

Ryle opens the season Nov. 30 at Simon Kenton. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

Conner junior point guard Anna Hamilton returns after averaging 16.9 points per game last year. Hamilton has offers from Northern Kentucky University, University at Buffalo and the University of Evansville. Photo provided

Conner Cougars

The Cougars entered the postseason as the hottest team in the region with 17 straight wins finishing an impressive 22-4 overall. But they did not make the 9th Region Tournament after Cooper ended their season with a 51-18 win in the district semifinals at Ryle.

Only Lauren Hawthorne graduated taking her talents to Glenville State in West Virginia after averaging 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last year. The elusive junior point guard Anna Hamilton returns after averaging 16.9 points last year. Hamilton has offers from the University of Evansville, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Northern Kentucky University.

“Our girls work really hard in practice,” said Michelle Gambrel, Conner head coach. “But they’re ready to go against other people right now. So in the next couple weeks, we’ll see where we’re at when we start going against other teams and players. One strength that we haven’t had in the last couple years is experience. We’ve been young the last couple years. We work really hard on defense. If we can hold teams as low as we can, we feel like we have a chance to be competitive.”

The other three returning starters are seniors, 5-11 forward Juliet Strange, guard Kelsee Simpson, and guard Emily McGraw. Strange averaged 10.9 points per game and just verbally committed to play soccer at the University of Maryland.

Conner has five seniors and five juniors. The other two seniors are forward Breanna Maidens and forward Elaina Keller. The other four juniors looking to give the Cougars depth are guard Ava Brown, guard Aubrey Fisher, forward Aubrey Depenbrock, and power forward Payton Gutzwiller. Gambrel said two underclassmen, sophomore guard Alexis Craddock and freshman power forward Izelee Kerns, could also make an impact this season.

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“The younger kids are really keeping up with us,” Simpson said. “It’s harder because they’re not used to it. It’s different than middle school basketball so we’re just helping them out. Conditioning and playing with us will help them adjust to (the varsity level).”

Conner again plans to play a man-to-man defense and push the ball in transition. The Cougars will use a lot of five-out weaving moves in the half-court.

Conner travels to Walton-Verona on Nov. 29 to open the season. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

Boone County Rebels

The Rebels took their lumps in a 2-26 finish in Todd Humphrey‘s first season as head coach. But he’s hoping the Rebels surprise people this year after only graduating senior Lesly Ishimwe and losing sophomore guard Savannah Steele to a move to Indiana.

Junior guard Kassidy Peters is the team’s leading returning scorer at 8.6 points per game. The other returning starters are junior guard Kaydence Roark, freshman guard Avery Jones and eighth grade guard/forward Alivia Scott. Senior forward Kaydence Greggs also started 10 to 12 games last year.

Boone County hopes to take advantage of some size in the paint with senior 5-11 center Lindsey Courtney and freshman 5-10 forward Joslyn LaBordeaux Humphrey, a Lloyd Memorial transfer and Coach Humphrey’s sister. Senior guard/forward Diana Zumba and sophomore guard/forward Mya Bennett could also make an impact.

The Rebels hope to run a fast-paced motion offense and play a man defense mixed in with some full-court pressure and possibly 2-3 or 3-2 zone defenses. Coach Humphrey said he and his staff would work with the returning players to handle on-ball pressure defense better. He noted five girls on the court should be able to shoot, dribble and pass unlike last year.

“Our biggest issue is we’re still young,” Coach Humphrey said. “But every girl we put out there this year has at least one year of varsity experience. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to this year. I know it’s hard to see coming off a two-win season. But I’m excited to surprise people.”

Boone County opens the season Nov. 28 at Holmes. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

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