This story originally appeared in the August 11 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe at linknky.com/subscribe.
Friday Night Lights are upon us.
Cue up the band, the rowdy student sections, mom, dad, grandma and grandpa pulling out their seats with a backrest – and those cotton candy skies. Not much beats a Friday night in the community cheering on the local football team, watching the cheerleaders do their thing and the band stealing the show at halftime.
Another season is upon us with storylines galore.
Here are just a few of many now that fall football season has officially started.
Listen to this story below and be sure to follow The Sunday Story Podcast by LINK nky wherever you get your podcasts!
Selm, Rodriguez headed to UK
It’s been nearly a decade since the last heralded Northern Kentucky recruit committed to the University of Kentucky when Conner’s Drew Barker did so in 2014. Highlands’ Patrick Towles in 2012 and Simon Kenton’s Miles Simpson in 2010 are the other standouts from NKY that headed to Lexington.
Now the Wildcats can add two more to the list with Simon Kenton’s Aba Selm committing in February and Covington Catholic’s Willie Rodriguez following suit in June, in advance of their senior years. Selm is a three-star prospect, a two-way lineman for the Pioneers. At 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, Selm is expected to wreak havoc on the Pioneers defensive front and help pave the way for a new quarterback under center after the departure of Chase Crone to Thomas More.
Selm’s leadership should help ignite a Simon Kenton team coming off an 8-4 season.
“By nature, Aba is kind of a quiet kid, not really outspoken, but has become more of a vocal leader. He’s really come out of his shell through the whole recruiting process, and that has brought him out a little bit,” Pioneers coach Roy Lucas said.
Rodriguez blew up this offseason, both with his body and his recruitment. He had over 30 offers by the time he committed to the ‘Cats, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end one of four in-state commitments so far to UK. Rodriguez added roughly 30 pounds to his frame – most of it muscle mass – as his impressive offseason brought a new offer almost every other day.
The two are friends, Selm helping with Rodriguez’s recruitment decision.
“We live like 10 minutes away from each other,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been on multiple visits together. So yeah, he has definitely helped a lot.”
Rodriguez is the No. 44 ranked tight end in the country, according to 247Sports, and the No. 6 ranked recruit in the state. Selm is the No. 43 ranked interior lineman in the country in the 247 rankings and the No. 2 ranked prospect in the state behind four-star quarterback Cutter Boley of Lexington Christian Academy, who is also committed to Kentucky.
The lone NKY team as one of six state champions in the state last season was Beechwood.
Despite returning 12 starters from the state title game and a 14-1 campaign that ended with yet another dramatic victory at the state championship in Lexington, there will be some change on the Tigers’ sidelines for the upcoming season – and it starts at the top.
Jay Volker takes over for Noel Rash, who retired after the season with eight state titles under his belt in his 17-year tenure at Beechwood. Volker won’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel and is well aware of the expectations in Fort Mitchell.
“It’s a little different when you take over a program that wins a lot. Six state championships out of the last seven years. We do lose a large senior class that comes with a couple of hurdles. Just really trying to build on what Coach Rash has instilled on these guys,” Volker said.
With the amount of injuries the Tigers endured last year, they took on the next-man-up mentality, and that will only benefit them moving forward as many sophomores and juniors had to step up and increase their roles. Clay Hayden returns under center after battling through an injury-plagued 2022 in which he missed five games, but still threw for 1,822 yards and 21 touchdowns.
He may not have Mitchell Berger behind him anymore to run the football, but the team also persevered through Berger’s season-ending injury eight games into the season after he was one of the leading candidates for Mr. Football. Volker expects Chase Flaherty to take on the load at running back as he ran for 768 yards and 19 touchdowns a season ago. Flaherty is no stranger to a big game, witnessed by his 115 yards rushing in the state title game against Mayfield, and was one of the top pitchers for the Tigers four-peat in the 9th Region on the baseball diamond.
It’s never a rebuild in Fort Mitchell, but rather a reload of talent as Volker expects speedster Luke Erdman and returning leading receiver Liam McCormack to be the top targets for Hayden this season.
Xavier Campbell returns off an 11-sack season to man the defense and is making the switch from the defensive line to linebacker. Another big question mark is who replaces the playmaking ability on the back end of the defense left by Antonio Robinson Jr., who took his talents to Wake Forest University on a Division I scholarship.
Beechwood’s real tests will come in their first five games of the season against Archbishop McNicholas (Ohio), Campbell County, Dixie Heights, Simon Kenton and Covington Catholic before it gets into district play against some unfamiliar teams with the new KHSAA realignment. The team is expected to cruise through district play, taking on Gallatin County, Walton-Verona, Owen County, Carroll County and Bracken County. The Tigers have been so dominant in district play, their last loss against a district opponent was in 2005.
KHSAA realignment shuffled some teams once again as programs learned of their districts for the 2023 and 2024 seasons. The majority of the 21 teams stayed in their same class, but many will be seeing new district opponents for the upcoming season.
A few moved up or down in class. Among those moving up are Lloyd Memorial from 2A to 3A and Scott from 4A to 5A. Those moving down are Newport from 2A to 1A, Holy Cross from 2A to 1A, Covington Catholic from 5A to 4A and Dixie Heights from 6A to 5A.
Perhaps the most intriguing move of the ones mentioned is CovCath’s move down to 4A. You’d have to go back to the late 1960s or early 70s for the last time the Colonels weren’t in a district with Highlands. Now they get the likes of Mason County, Grant County and Harrison County, a district in which they’ll be heavily favored. It wouldn’t be surprising if they put up a running clock in every one of those games. Despite the proximity challenges within district play, Covington Catholic won’t have to travel outside of NKY much, with its first five games all within the area. The longest bus ride they’ll make is down to Maysville to face Mason County on Oct. 20. CovCath opens up with Ryle, Highlands, Simon Kenton, Dixie Heights and Beechwood.
“I’ve always been a very big supporter of Northern Kentucky football, and I also think that it’s some of the best football in the state. Those are all great programs, any of those teams at any time can be hot and really make a mark on Northern Kentucky and the state in general,” Colonels coach Eddie Eviston said.
Much like the Colonels’ geographical landscape in 4A, Lloyd Memorial’s move to 3A virtually puts it on an island in NKY. Luckily, the team won’t have to fire up the cheese wagon often. The closest opponent in district play is Pendleton County, the other two in the Class 3A, 5th District way south in or around Lexington with Bourbon County and Lexington Catholic. For the upcoming season, both Bourbon and LexCath will be making the trip north to Erlanger, with the Juggernauts making return trips south in 2024. Coming off a state semifinal appearance for the first time since 2003, the Juggernauts enter the season with a lot of optimism as they return quite a bunch, including playmaker Isaiah Sebastian, three offensive linemen and their top three tacklers.
New fields at Ludlow, Lloyd Memorial, Covington Catholic, Beechwood
Boise State might have the blue smurf turf, but Ludlow now has red turf. Yes, that’s right, the Panthers will break out their new red-colored field on Aug. 18 when they open the season with Lockland (Ohio) at historic James Rigney Stadium.
As opposed to the normal rubber fill for the majority of football turf projects, Ludlow’s field sits in a floodplain, so it went the Envirofill route. Envirofill consists of sand granules that sit on the field, are heavier and pack down more if it floods. If another historic flood like the one in 1997 were to come around again, the enviro-fill would protect the field from being damaged.
The Panthers weren’t the only ones to break out the artificial playing surface. Lloyd Memorial also opted for turf. A new synthetic turf field with a new track surrounding it, accompanied by stadium bleachers, highlights the $3.3 million project on Cecil Dees Field. Lloyd Memorial will get to show off its new look when it hosts Newport Central Catholic on Aug. 18.
State champs Beechwood also resurfaced their field, the shiny new turf already adding to the pristine look at the Gordon and Joann Hood Family Athletic Center.
Covington Catholic upgraded its existing synthetic turf with a new playing surface, in which it installed a shock pad to enhance player safety.
Talent is there, but is Cooper they still a year away?
Outside of the offensive line, the Jaguars return quite a bit of production and talent for a team looking for its first postseason victory since 2018. Cooper has strung together back-to-back winning seasons, and now it’s a matter of when it takes the next step in November.
“I’ve really been impressed with the work ethic; these kids work their tail ends off,” Jaguars coach Randy Borchers said. “They’ve approached things with great attitudes, very little, if any complaining. We feel like we’ve had one of the best offseasons we’ve had in a long time in the weight room, and guys are committed. It’s exciting for the entire coaching staff, and I feel like we’re deeper than we’ve ever been. We feel like we’re further along this time of year than we usually are.”
The Jaguars threw freshman quarterback Cam O’Hara into the fire last season, and he delivered with 2,018 yards passing and 21 touchdowns. Now with a season under his belt and college coaches taking notice with a couple of scholarship offers, the blinkers are off as he enters year two under center. Outside of the departure from graduate Eli White, O’Hara will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, including leading receiver Isaiah Johnson and tight end/slot receiver Austin Alexander. The two combined to catch 67 passes for 1,195 yards and 14 touchdowns as O’Hara’s favorite targets.
Alexander made waves this offseason by picking up multiple Power 5 offers, including Kentucky and Louisville. He’s being recruited as a defensive end, with his prowess to get to the quarterback resulting in 11 sacks and 85 tackles in his sophomore season. He’ll help be disruptive in the backfield while Jack Lonaker anchors the defense. The senior recorded 148 tackles during his junior year.
This still begs the question – with the majority of the production back, are they still a year away with O’Hara being a sophomore and most of the productive pieces returning juniors? They’re projected to start just six seniors.
Beechwood, Bellevue, Ludlow welcome in new coaches
Out of the 21 schools in Boone, Campbell and Kenton County that field a football team, four of them had head coaching changes in the offseason. Beechwood welcomes Jay Volker after Noel Rash retired. Chad Montgomery heads to his alma mater at Bellevue, hoping to turn things around after the departure of Dave Brausch, and Woody McMillen also returns to his alma mater to coach Ludlow after Greg Taphouse stepped down. Jake Owens was set to take over after Eric Turner resigned in December at Scott, but after six months on the job, Owens resigned three weeks before the season started.
Volker is just the fourth coach in Fort Mitchell since 1975. He comes over from Talawanda (Ohio), coaching the Braves for the past two seasons in a rebuild project. It’s quite the contrast in his new spot.
Unlike Volker, Montgomery and McMillen are very familiar with the area. Montgomery is a 2001 Bellevue grad and has prior stops at Dayton as the head coach for eight seasons and was an assistant on Randy Borchers’ staff at Cooper.
McMillen graduated from Ludlow in 1987 and led the inauguration of the Walton-Verona program in 2008 and guided Bellevue from 2015-18. He’s very familiar with what he has, having been an assistant on staff the prior three seasons and also serving as the school’s head baseball coach.
There are two districts that feature strictly LINK nky-area teams, the Class 5A, 6th District with Boone County, Conner, Cooper, Dixie Heights, Highlands and Scott.
Then there’s the Class 1A, 3rd District with Bellevue, Dayton, Newport and Newport Central Catholic.
Highlands and Newport Central Catholic will be the clear favorites in the two respective districts, but expect challenges from Cooper and Dixie Heights in the 5A, 6th District and Newport in the Class 1A, 3rd District in their second season under Ryan Hahn.
Verax on pace to top Morgan
Ryle senior Logan Verax’s coming-out party came in a downpour on Nov. 6, 2020. He was just a wide-eyed freshman at the time but threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns in the less-than-ideal conditions.
Fast-forward nearly three years, and the Raiders senior is on the verge of etching himself at the top of many record books in not only program history, but NKY history. Verax enters the season with 369 career completions, 4,714 passing yards and 38 TDs, all within range of the mighty Tanner Morgan, who put up his career numbers in two seasons at Ryle after transferring from Hazard High School. Morgan, who was recently signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2023 NFL Draft, finished his Raiders career with 398 completions, 5,421 yards and 48 touchdowns.
Verax already holds the program’s single-game record with five passing TDs. He’s No. 2 behind Morgan with 429 single-game passing yards. He’s been threatening Morgan’s single-season passing yards record of 2,747.
Verax is Northern Kentucky’s active passing yards leader by more than 1,000 and second in passing TDs.
“I think Logan is the best quarterback in Northern Kentucky, and I would probably put him in the top five in the state,” Raiders coach Mike Engler said.