High School Basketball in Northern Kentucky is Thriving
(Photo courtesy of Les Nicholson)
The Fort Thomas Highlands Bluebirds rolled through the 2021 KHSAA Boy’s Sweet 16, winning every game by double-digits (all against ranked teams) and claiming the school’s first championship in the process.
Even though the state tournament was played from March 31 – April 3, the eventual winner may have been determined the week before. That’s when the 9th region, the Northern Kentucky regional tournament, was played. Then #4 St. Henry defeated then #1 Covington Catholic in the first round 61-60. That set up a semifinal matchup between St. Henry and #6 Highlands, in which the Bluebirds won 74-68, their closest game of the postseason. They followed that up with a 77-67 win over a top 25 Conner team.
An argument can be made that the top 3 teams in the state all reside in Northern Kentucky. Highlands won the state championship, so their case is clear. The Bluebirds beat Ashland in the first game of the season, ending the Tomcats’ 33-game winning streak. Covington Catholic suffered only three in-state losses all season, with two coming to St. Henry by identical 61-60 scores, and the other coming at the hands of North Laurel in overtime early in the season. The Colonels’ resume includes regular-season wins over state semifinalist Ashland (71-62) and state finalist E-Town (79-62). St. Henry’s resume includes back-to-back All “A” State titles, two wins over Covington Catholic, and a win over Highlands. Their only losses were to Lexington Catholic (80-78 in OT), and 9th region top 25 teams Beechwood, Dixie Heights, and Highlands.
Northern Kentucky schools have won 2 of the past 3 state tournaments (Covington Catholic in 2018 and Highlands in 2021). Covington Catholic also won the title in 2014. Northern Kentucky has had a state finalist in 3 of the past 4 state tournaments (Cooper lost to Bowling Green in 2017).
The area has produced several big-time D1 players recently including CJ Frederick (Covington Catholic – Iowa), 2021 state tournament MVP Sam Vinson (Highlands, Northern Kentucky University), Adam Kunkel (Cooper – Belmont/Xavier), James “Beetle” Bolden (Holmes – WVU/Alabama), and Sean McNeil (Cooper – WVU). Though Pendleton County is not in the 9th region it is close in proximity so I will also mention 2019 Mr. Basketball winner Dontaie Allen (Pendleton County, UK).
Next year I expect Covington Catholic and Highlands to be in the mix to make a run at another state title. Evan Ipsaro is a name to keep an eye on for Covington Catholic in the class of 2023.