Dan Weber’s Just Sayin’: Northern Kentucky sports now . . . Where are we?

Dan Weber
Dan Weber
Dan Weber is LINK nky's sports editor-at-large. Contact him at [email protected]

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It’s been a year or so here, back in the sports mix in Northern Kentucky and maybe it’s time to sum up some observations after three decades away in Philly, Chicago, and LA.

So how does the sports scene in Northern Kentucky look these days?

It’s an interesting mix. Some of it way up. Some not so much.

The facilities across the board are so much better. Start at the top with NKU’s 9,000-seat Truist Bank Arena replacing Regents Hall and giving Northern Kentucky a place to play big basketball games and tournaments. Just wish NKU fans would show up in bigger numbers.

Thomas More Stadium. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky sports editor at large

Then there’s Thomas More Stadium, a place the Florence Y’alls and top high school baseball games and tournaments call home. A more than worthy successor to Covington Ball Park that fell victim with three other Covington baseball fields to I-75 and it took decades for this area to recover.

With the way the Cincinnati Reds, something of a Northern Kentucky fixture on their Ohio River location the last 52 years, have withdrawn from baseball fans’ affection in recent seasons, it’s nice to have a minor league team to root for – even if only occasionally.

Fun at the Florence Y’alls game. Photo by Dan Weber.

To some extent, the Y’alls offer a replacement for the Buckeye League and all those world’s championship softball teams – men’s and women’s – who dominated summer ball here. Worth a visit. Plenty of free parking. An atmosphere that’s a mix of a county fair, your kids’ playground, and a baseball game with lots of promotions and reasonable concession prices.

And with half the world, it seems, moving out to Union and the arrival of the new Boone County schools, there’s been an almost universal switch to artificial, year-round, all-weather turf that makes so many high school venues truly 24/7/365 multi-sports hosts for soccer, lacrosse, intramurals, and community sports in addition to football.

Back in the day, when a Northern Kentucky high school was scheduled to play on artificial turf, say at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, it was such a big deal getting the turf shoes and the practice time. Now no one even thinks about it.

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The new facilities out Boone County way and at places like Covington Catholic, Campbell County, and Bishop Brossart, also have seen a push as the older ones, like those at Ludlow, Dixie Heights, and Holmes to name just a few, get themselves updated.

The presence of St. Elizabeth Healthcare in the sponsoring of new baseball complexes at the Bellevue Vets, Covington’s Meinken Field, and Ludlow’s Lemker Field, has been another big step up.

Lemker Field. Photo by Dan Weber.

Outside of Newport Stadium, which must be re-built before it can be used again for the football-going public, things are on the upswing here.

On the other hand, when it comes to top-end talent, it’s going in the other direction, it seems. It’s shocking that with 39 native Kentucky players on the UK football roster for this fall, players from the likes of Stamping Ground and Jackson, Vine Grove and Science Hill, for the second straight season not a single Wildcat footballer will come from the 400,000 folks in Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties.

That’s not how it used to be. And it’s a bit perplexing with the way Northern Kentucky teams have done in the state high school playoffs. And yet, the best offer for Mr. Football and two-time state champion, Beechwood quarterback Cam Hergott, came from Eastern Kentucky.

The word we were hearing from college coaches was that the schedule – Class A in Kentucky plus the likes of CovCath and Dixie Heights – made it hard to evaluate Cam. That’s the downside of the six-level class structure in Kentucky football. More state titles, fewer big-time college scholarships.

And while more programs seem to be working hard here in football, it’s impossible to imagine a world where four Class A teams – Beechwood, Ludlow, Bellevue, and Dayton – could all win titles as they did in the early years.

As the pre-season college football magazines hit the stands with only CovCath alum – and All-American Notre Dame tight end — Michael Mayer’s name featured there, it seems a little lonely for college fans here. No locals either — except for Cincinnati offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli — with the Bearcats impressively rising national program.

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Basketball is clearly on the upswing. While Northern Kentucky and Thomas More have much different visions of what their programs should be, where they’re going and who they’re going to be playing, small school TMU seems to have the edge right now. Three NCAA/NAIA national championships for the women’s team and an NAIA semifinalist spot for the men in March will do that for you.

We’ll be exploring those different visions soon. One thing we like for each program is how TMU will soon be headed back to the NCAA – Division II (with athletic scholarships). And NKU fans can look forward to a three-game series against UC the next three Novembers – at UC this year and 2024, at Northern in 2023.

With CJ Fredrick, state champion CovCath’s MVP before going to Iowa, back in the UK lineup after sitting out last season with a leg injury, the interest in the Wildcats here should be much higher. That John Calipari needs somebody who can score from outside in his offense and that Fredrick fits the bill as the nation’s premier long-range transfer gunner should give folks hereabouts a reason to turn on their TVs when the Wildcats are on this winter.

At the high school level, this should be a fun year. CovCath — a much smaller CovCath team — will be there again. And after Highlands’ winning a state championship a year ago, it’s hard to ignore this area. At least one of the Boone schools is there every year, maybe a couple this year, not to mention Lloyd Memorial with fast-rising 6-foot-7 sophomore EJ Walker along with Holy Cross’ Jacob Meyer, the nation’s leading scorer as a junior at 38.2 points a game.

How long has it been since two schools with “Covington” in their name had a chance to produce the top two senior guards in the state with Meyer joined by CovCath’s explosive Evan Ipsaro?

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The last time that happened was 1959 when Holmes’ sharp-shooting Bob Barton turned down Adolph Rupp to become a baseball “bonus baby” catcher for a decade-long major league career.

And all Covington Grant’s Tom Thacker did from that class was become a two-time first-team consensus All-American at the University of Cincinnati where he led the Bearcats to a pair of NCAA titles (losing a third on a last-second tip) and then to an NBA title with the Boston Celtics and an ABA title with the Indianapolis Pacers. Thacker is the only man to ever win the title trifecta.

As for girls’ high schools, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are more teams battling for the top hoops spot here with more players going on to college but maybe not as many teams and players at the very top in the state.

That’s not the case with volleyball and soccer as St. Henry and Notre Dame proved this year. And as Bishop Brossart proves every year in track and field. Softball was a different story in what was a difficult season for Northern Kentucky teams.

At the college level, in addition to a TMU team that seems assured of fighting for a national title no matter whether in the NCAA or NAIA, there’s also the return of Ryle’s Maddie Scherr, the 2020 Miss Basketball in Kentucky from Oregon to UK.

So good news, and not so good news. Better places to play. And in sports like baseball and softball, many more people coming out to watch them play.

But without those untouchable Highlands football teams, or Newport Central Catholic without its occasional GCL-level individual talent, it’s maybe not the same quality. Just the way Holmes has vanished in basketball and that has diminished the top-level competitiveness in the boys’ game.

Much like since the pandemic, marching bands have pretty much gone away for good, it seems. Miss them, too.

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