9th Region boys basketball tips off this week and it’s stacked with talent

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

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The rule, and it’s a good one, is to never say “never.” Especially when you’re talking sports.

But when it comes to Ninth Region boys’ basketball this season, Northern Kentucky might as well be listed as “Never”-land when it comes to our hoops geography.

Never, at least in anyone’s memory, have there been so many teams with a legitimate shot at the regional title.

Never have there been so many big men who could play.

Never have there been as many freshmen who will contribute at the varsity level.

And never has there been a guard duo like Covington Catholic’s Evan Ipsaro and Holy Cross’s Jacob Meyer who could go straight from the Ninth Region to the postseason all-star circuit and lead Kentucky against Indiana in the June All-Star series.

Now for this footnote: Until this season, never has the Ninth Region had the nation’s leading scorer returning for his senior year, although until October when the athletic, ambidextrous Meyer decided to return from The Skill Factory prep school in Atlanta, it didn’t look like the Ninth Region would have the pleasure of watching the 6-foot-2 perimeter player, who averaged 38.2 points a game last season, in his final year here. But he’s back in Latonia. And Northern Kentucky basketball fans are the clear winners.

Let’s take this from the top.

SO MANY TEAMS WITH A REAL SHOT

“I think it’s an easy six or seven teams,” says Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman, who would know. When he took his Bluebirds to the state title two years back, “there were four teams up here who could have won it all,” he says, “us, CovCath, St. Henry, and Beechwood.”

According to our coaches’ poll, it’s still Covington Catholic in front but by a small margin over the likes of Cooper, Lloyd Memorial, Conner, Holy Cross, Highlands, and Newport.

Despite the loss of big men like 6-8 Mitchell Riley to graduation and Miami of Ohio, and 6-6 Chandler Starks, who transferred back to Cincinnati Anderson High School, the defending regional champs have enough experience, if not size, to get back to the Kentucky Sweet 16 where they bowed out narrowly as a semifinalist a year ago, Coach Scott Ruthsatz says. “I vote for us, too.”

Last year, CovCath seemed inevitable. This year it’s anything but. Especially in a region with so much size and talent returning while the Colonels will look to transitioning football star Aiden Jones, at 6-3 and 250 pounds and on his way to West Point as a defensive lineman, for their post play.

The challenges will come from everywhere. There’s Tim Sullivan’s Cooper team, big and deep and with the experience of last season’s rally through the regional.

There’s the Lloyd Juggernauts with a pair of Division I college players in NKU signee, 6-3 senior guard Jeremiah Israel, and 6-8 sophomore E.J. Walker, Coach Mike Walker’s son, who has more than a half-dozen D-1 offers already.

Then there’s Conner with a trio of talented returnees in Landen Hamilton, Daniel Campbell, and Ayden Lohr.

There’s Holy Cross with a much-improved and bigger-than-ever 7-foot Sam Gibson, in addition to Meyer and another high-scoring guard in Javier Ward.

Highlands has Will Herald back, a 6-2 sharpshooter who could graduate as the greatest three-point shooter in Kentucky high school history.

Right there with Highlands is a Newport team that could feature three freshmen who can play and a 6-5 senior talent in Marquez Miller.

The next threesome in our coaches’ poll is led by Dave Faust’s St. Henry team ahead of an Erik Goetz Beechwood team led by big scorer Cameron Boyd, and finally a Dixie Heights team that got it going to the regional final last season and despite a new coach and mostly new roster, still makes our Top Ten.

Just missing the Top 10 were Newport Central Catholic, Ryle, and Boone County. Here’s the poll:

1) CovCath, 89 points

2) Cooper, 70

3) Lloyd Memorial, 69

4) (tie) Conner and Holy Cross, 60 each

6) Highlands and Newport, 40 each

8) St. Henry, 21

9) Beechwood, 14

10) Dixie Heights, 13.

Others getting votes: Newport Central Catholic, 10; Ryle, 3; and Boone County, 1.

And here are the teams the way we see them.

SMALL, QUICK COVCATH WILL HAVE A DIFFERENT LOOK

CovCath’s Ruthsatz says his vote goes to his Colonels even though he knows their shortcomings, as it were. “When you look around the region, our lack of size could put us in some situations,” says Ruthsatz, who prefers to emphasize the positives. Like senior All-State guard Evan Ipsaro, a point guard headed to Miami of Ohio who can score (21.7 points a game), has a great mid-range game, and can pass it. “It’s hard to play a box-and-one on him because he can pass it so well,” Ruthsatz says.

Returning All-Sweet-16 player Brady Hussey is one of those he can pass it to along with Kascyl McGillis, who both can shoot the three, which is how the Colonels, who were 30-5 a year ago, will have to beat people. “We’ll surround Aiden Jones, a tough kid, with shooters,” Ruthsatz says. Collin Detzel gives CovCath a lean 6-6 perimeter player while coming in some at the point will be true freshman Atlas McGillis, who has played well in the preseason.

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“We’re going to have to shoot it really well, play fast and it will all depend on our defensive rebounding,” Ruthsatz says. But a team that has a “big who can stretch you out like Cooper and Lloyd . . . but that’s why you play these games, to be ready by March . . . we’re going to lose some of these games.”

Right off the bat Tuesday, CovCath will find out if it can handle opponent’s height as it heads to Independence where Simon Kenton’s 7-foot-3 shot-blocking Gabe Dynes awaits. He’ll have a foot on CovCath’s Jones. Should be interesting.

BIG, DEEP COOPER WILL BE A TOUGH MATCHUP

As Ruthsatz looks around the region, he can’t help but see the big guys out Cooper way led by 6-9 senior Caleb Brooks (15 ppg, 7.6 rebounds), who is getting D-1 interest from the likes of Bellarmine, and where a pair of 6-5 players join Brooks up front in Trevor Ollier (6.8 ppg, 5.1 rebounds) and Gavin Lutz (7.2 ppg, 5.2 rebounds). Four of Coach Tim Sullivan’s top seven scorers return from a 22-7 team.

“Should be an exciting year with a lot of teams who can win it, in my opinion,” says Sullivan, a former Brescia College player who will take his Jaguars back to the Owensboro SportsCenter for the first time in his coaching career.

Cooper Coach Tim Sullivan with his Jaguar team. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky

Another scheduling feature this year, Sullivan notes, is the way all 33rd District games will play girls/boys doubleheaders this season. “Should increase the rivalry and intensity for the fans,” he says.

WITH 2 D-1 PLAYERS, LLOYD’S JUGGS SHOULD BE A LOAD

Six-foot-three senior guard Jeremiah Israel (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rebounds) is one of NKU’s two early signees and he’ll have plenty of help from the coach’s son, sophomore E.J. Walker (10.7 ppg, 6.2 rebounds), who is causing all sorts of buzz with his summer play – and his growth. The 6-8, 220-pounder has gotten D-1 offers from Xavier, Purdue, Duquesne, NKU, Dayton, Minnesota, and Ohio U. among others. And he still has three seasons to play. Not sure we can recall a Ninth Region player with those kinds of offers, certainly not before his sophomore year.

Last season the 22-8 Juggs got themselves all the way to the Ninth Region semis but the plan this time around is to ride their top two guys a lot farther than that. One feature of this season’s schedule fans here should like is that CovCath is back on the schedule so check out that Jan. 20 game, just another of the many top matchups in Northern Kentucky this season.

CONNER’S COUGARS BRING 3 WHO CAN GET IT DONE

Conner or Cooper, take your pick in the 33rd District. The Conner Cougars won the district title a year ago and bring just about everybody back starting with their top three scorers, all seniors, led by Landen Hamilton’s 17.4 ppg with Daniel Campbell at 12.8 ppg and long-range shooter Ayden Lohr at 12.2. Campbell also pulls down six rebounds a game.

Matt Otte’s Cougars have a challenging early schedule, especially if Hamilton’s foot injury lingers. They open in Lexington at Henry Clay Tuesday then come home for three Top-10 Ninth Region opponents in St. Henry, Beechwood, and Dixie Heights before facing Cincinnati Elder at the John Turner Classic at Newport and then district rival Cooper, also at home. Then it’s three games at the Scott Winter Classic before heading to the Gussler Holiday Invitational at Worthington, Ohio, and then against Dublin, Ohio, Jerome in the Beacon Orthopedic/Tri-Health Classic at Cintas Center. By the time we get to the new year, we should have a good idea of where the Cougars’ regional hopes stand.

Conner Coach Matt Otte with his Cougar team. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky

If not, we will after the second half of the season when in early January, Conner faces both Holy Cross and CovCath on the road and in the final game of the regular season, travels to Lloyd Memorial.

HOLY CROSS HAS SIZE, SPEED & JACOB MEYER

The big news out Latonia way might not be the decision of record-breaking scorer Jacob Meyer to return in early October from The Skill Factory basketball prep school in Atlanta — if it’s possible for the nation’s leading scorer at 38.2 points a game to return quietly.

But it may be the improvement, skill-wise and size-wise, of big man Sam Gibson, now 7-feet tall and a solid 235 pounds, 30 more than a year ago after daily weight and basketball workouts where Coach Casey Sorrell had him doing point guard work to improve his overall basketball skills. For Sorrell, Sam is the third 7-footer he’s coached in his six high school seasons so it’s not unfamiliar territory.

Holy Cross’s Jacob Meyer, left, and CovCath’s Evan Ipsaro. Photo by Dan Weber | LINK nky

Of the big men he’s coached, Sorrell says “they’re always a year away from being a year away,” of the time it takes for big men to develop. As to the 6-foot-2 Meyer, who can break all sorts of Ninth Region scoring records this season, that’s not the focus of his daily workouts with Sorrell. Meyer is back, he said, because “his heart was always at Holy Cross and he wanted to finish what he started.” That finish will have him “becoming a pure point guard, Sorrell says, and “a double-digit assist guy, a double-digit rebound guy.”

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He’s not worried about his scoring, says Meyer, who de-commited from Western Kentucky and has offers from Miami of Ohio, Marshall, Bowling Green, Indiana State, James Madison, and Eastern Kentucky. “My 20 will come,” Jacob said of learning how “to be a winner, how to talk more on the floor, how to get other players involved” at The Skill Factory. One other player to involve will be his senior guard-mate Javier Ward, who averaged 17.4 points a game.

HIGHLANDS, HERALD, & SOME LONG-RANGE SHOOTING HERE

They’re not changing the formula in Fort Thomas, Kevin Listerman says. We’re going to do our thing – shoot it and play fast.” The Bluebirds are not afraid to shoot it from long range, which should be just fine with his leading returnee, 6-2 perimeter player Will Herald (18.4 ppg last season). “He doesn’t get the notoriety,” Listerman says, “but he has more than 200 three-pointers shooting 51 percent from three and when he graduates, he should have 300 three-pointers, making him the most prolific three-point scorer in Kentucky history.”

With five seniors gone, Herald looks to get help from 6-5 football quarterback Brody Benke, who played considerable minutes a year ago as well. The Birds’ new players, like former Mr. Basketball Sam Vinson’s younger brother, Nathan, will get a crash course with three games this first week – at Scott Tuesday, against Boone County Thursday and at Tates Creek Friday.

“Some people say the region is down this year,” Listerman says, “I say it’s just balanced.”

NEWPORT: 3 FRESHMAN & 6-4 PLAY-EVERYWHERE MARQUEZ MILLER

The talent is there for the Wildcats, even if it’s a bit young. “We’ll see,” says 13-year head coach Rod Snapp of a lineup led by 6-5, 220-pound senior Marquez Miller, who averaged 15 points a game with six rebounds last season “and can play anywhere, all five positions,” Snapp says.

He’ll have some good company in a pair of freshmen who started as eighth graders, Snapp says on that 9-19 team. “A lot of people don’t know that,” Snapp says of his second-year starters – 6-foot guard Taylen McKinney and 6-7 James Turner — he calls “two of the top freshmen in the state.” Both are already getting offers with Kinney’s 10.0 ppg average and 82.0 percent free throw shooting attracting D-1 interest and getting the Wildcats into tournaments like the King of the Bluegrass – next year.

Four sophomores and another freshman, 6-4 Keegan Farrell, and an eighth grader, Amonte Lowe, round out the roster. “I’ll have everybody back next year,” Snapp says of his team he calls “close-knit, extremely young with a lot of talent.” How that will work out this year, “We’ll see,” he says, excited over the eight teams from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana coming to Newport for the John Turner Classic, Dec. 10.

ST. HENRY ON THE WAY BACK

“We have to replace our top two scorers and rebounders,” says Coach Dave Faust, “but we do have a nucleus of players who gained valuable experience last year.” And they’ll get more of it right away in what Faust describes as “a tough first month of the season” that “hopefully prepares us for the All “A” Tournament and the 34th District Tournament.”

Faust wasn’t kidding about a “tough first month.” The Crusaders open at Cooper then head to Conner in the first two games, then host CovCath in Game 4 before heading to Highlands the next game, then facing a pair of St. Xavier’s the next two games – Cincinnati St. Xavier in the John Turner Classic and Louisville St. Xavier in the Carespring Holiday Classic at Highlands.

Five returnees averaged between five and 10-plus points for the 14-10 Crusaders a year ago: Matt Resing (10.2 ppg), Jack Grayson (8.8), Rhet Ravenscraft (6.8), Braden Fedders (5.3), and Ethan Kaiser (5.1) and will have to replace the 24.0 points a game from Camden Fedders and Owen Setters.

IN STATE’S TOUGHEST DISTRICT, BEECHWOOD TRIES TO FIND ITS WAY

They play in what could well be the state’s toughest district this season with CovCath and Holy Cross and only two teams advancing to the regional but that’s the deal for 10-year coach Erik Goetz’s solid Beechwood program.

The Tigers return four starters from last year’s 23-6 team led by one of the region’s top players in 6-1 scoring wing Cameron Boyd who averaged 21.3 points a game (and six rebounds) along with 6-foot freshman point guard Cash Harney (8.0 ppg) as soon as he’s back from football. But after starting at the point as an eighth grader a year ago, and with his experience filling in as the starting quarterback for five games for the Tigers’ top-ranked football team, that shouldn’t take Harney long. Boyd is a two-sport guy as well, having led the state in home runs for the Tigers last spring. Two sophomores, 6-5 Mattox Kelly and 6-2 Jack Sullivan, join tough-rebounding 6-2 Trevor Logue in filling out the lineup with their length and scoring.

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Looking at the schedule, Beechwood plays in three tournaments before the end of the year – at Rowan County’s Stock Yards Bank & Trust Challenge, at Bellevue’s Swauger Holiday Classic, and the South Oldham Christmas Classic. Good way to get ready for what comes next in the new year – Lloyd Memorial, CovCath, Newport, and Dixie Heights.

DIXIE HEIGHTS, NEW COACH, MOSTLY NEW TEAM

From a 22-7 senior-laden ball club that made it to the regional finals before losing to CovCath, junior Hudson Blank (10.2 ppg) is the lone Colonel who scored the ball much at all. And for new coach Chad Fields, this will be his first go-round calling the shots for the Edgewood school after Roger Stainforth stepped down.

Gone are familiar names like Kiernan Geraci (19.4 ppg) and 6-8 Billy Wogenstahl (15.5 ppg, 8.9 rebounds). The Colonels open Wednesday against Campbell County, then host Simon Kenton Friday and visit Conner next Tuesday. We’ll know more then. As will Coach Fields.

Now for the best of the rest:

NEWPORT CENTRAL CATHOLIC: Nowhere to go but up for a NewCath program that experienced its second straight losing season with a 10-18 record a year ago in a combined lost season for four-fifths of the 36th District with Bellevue, Dayton, and Newport. A whole bunch of seniors would be a good place to start for Coach Jake Luhn’s Thoroughbreds with Jase Iles (10.5 ppg) and Coby Kramer (9.1 ppg) the top returning scorers.

RYLE: Not many experienced returnees from the Raiders’ 13-20 season last year. There is senior guard Chris Walker (9.0 ppg) and football QB Logan Verax (4.5 ppg) to build around for Coach Nick Dorning but no starters back from last year’s team. “We’ll be inexperienced,” Dorning says, “but our senior leadership has been fantastic . . . very interested to see how things play out.”

BOONE COUNTY: From last year’s 14-16 Rebel team, starters Thomas Williams (9.7 ppg) and Will Raleigh (7.2) return. Right now, Coach Nate Browning said his team is focused “only on the next game, the opener against Newport Central Catholic.” But down the road, “getting our guys experience and getting them used to playing a varsity game will be the most important thing for this group” that he calls “committed,” and “bought in” and “working extremely hard.”

And finally, for the rest of the Region:

33rd District: Tough spot to be the No. 5 team here for a Heritage Academy team that finished 8-14 last season but brings back a number of scorers from that club. But they’re still young with sophomores Landon Warner (18.7 ppg) and Elisha Shultz (10.5 ppg) leading the way for Coach Jerry Miles’ Eagles.

34th District: New Ludlow coach Aaron Stamm moves over from a smash run with the girls’ team and has his top player, football star Jaxson Rice (13.6 ppg) to lead the way for the Panthers, who finished 14-16 last season.

Villa Madonna Coach Trevor Gould has top scorer Henry Thole (12.3 ppg) back. He’s an “under-radar” guy who is getting some serious college interest, Gould says, off last year’s 6-19 Vikings team that finds itself in a district with Lloyd, St. Henry and Dixie Heights. Senior guard Joey Case has moved up from sixth man to team leader and guard Joey Grannen is a strong defender.

35th District: Tony Perkins, the former girls’ head coach and boys’ assistant, takes over for a Holmes team that lost almost everybody who scored a point from the 11-17 Bulldogs last season. Tough debut in a tough district with three of our Top 10 teams.

Covington Latin: New coach Greg Smorey will have the top scorers back from the Trojans’ 1-20 team last season in Gunnar Brummett (12.3 ppg) and Casey Fitzpatrick (8.8) but the Trojans’ 22-game schedule does not include any 35th District games again this season for the accelerated program for students two years advanced with their fourth-year students the equivalent of sophomores.

36th District: Dayton’s Greendevils came oh-so-close to ending a 10-year losing-season streak with a 14-15 record but lose just about everybody for a rebuilding year for Coach Mike Walls Jr.’s team. Mason Johnson (11.9 ppg) is the lone double-digit scorer back.

Bellevue’s Tigers didn’t win a game in the region a year ago (0-15) and have lost 88 of 112 games the last six non-winning seasons with only one .500 year, but double-figure scorers Zach Mertens 13.3 ppg) and Noah Frommeyer (10.3) return to give Coach Jim Hicks’ team a chance.  

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