Local coaches recently named the junior point guard for the Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team the 9th Region Player of the Year. Vinson scored 791 points and grabbed 279 rebounds for averages of 24.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in helping the Bluebirds to a 28-4 record and a spot in the region championship game for the first time since 2001.
Vinson completed his second season as the full-time starting point guard. He was the only returning starter from the 20-12 Highlands squad as a sophomore in the 2018-19 season. That team returned to the region tournament for the first time since 2014.
"You have to have team success in order to get something like the player of the year for sure," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "Sam was the engine that drove us. He absolutely deserves the recognition that he's gotten. The best compliment that you can give to a player is that he makes the players around him better and that's what Sam does both in games and statistically, but probably more importantly, off the floor and in our workouts. Sam is an unbelievable teammate. That's probably the hardest thing to capture and he's a tireless worker. The guys around him want to work hard because they know how hard he's working. All of those things are connected."
Vinson made 270-of-510 shots for 53 percent including 45-of-122 three-point shots for 37 percent and 206-of-257 free throws for 80 percent. Vinson recorded 14 double-doubles on the season with a season-high of 44 in the City of Middletown Holiday Classic title game against Louisville Eastern and a season-high 13 rebounds in the region quarterfinal win over Dixie Heights.
"Like (Coach Listerman) said, every day at practice, myself along with seniors tried to push everyone to get better," Vinson said. "We competed against each other. In the off-season, when I'm going up to get shots, other people want to come up, too. We usually get a big crowd to go up and get some extra shots in that lead into the season also."
Vinson had a number of memorable moments from the season. That included a crucial triple down the stretch in overtime in the 81-77 win at Newport Central Catholic on Jan. 28.
Highlands loses guards Hunter Ahlfeld, Jacob Brass and forward Jack Delagrange from this season. The Bluebirds won their first 36th District championship since 2008 and won 28 games in a season for the first time since the 1997-1998 squad that finished 31-4 winning the 9th Region crown before beating Graves County (66-49) then losing 72-67 to eventual state champion Scott County in the state quarterfinals.
But Highlands does return its second-leading scorer in junior Luke Muller at 15.7 points per game in addition to a third starter in junior forward Bryson Cody. Junior guard Evan Rom, sophomore guard Zach Barth and sophomore forward Oliver Harris also played key roles off the bench. Guards such as sophomores Austin Duncan, Abe Hils, freshman William Herald and sophomore forward Cole Kocher aim to give the Bluebirds depth next season.
"Of course, we're going to miss our seniors," Vinson said. "But we have some young players that will all step up and make us better next year. The juniors on this team have to continue doing what we're doing. Hopefully, that will help us get a chance at Rupp next year."
Some teams struggle playing on the huge floor at the BB&T Center on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. But Highlands did not seem to have any issues playing there this season.
"When you first get on the floor, it's kind of intimidating because BB&T Center is so much bigger than Highlands (home Russell Bridges Gym) or other gyms you play in," Kocher said. "But once you get in, you warm up to the feeling. It's just like a normal game from that point on."
It was not only the Highlands varsity team that played for a region championship losing 59-54 to Covington Catholic. But the junior varsity and freshman teams did as well with the junior varsity winning the title.
"For the first time since I've taken over, there are going to be very high expectations for our basketball program," Listerman said. "The expectations are going to be different, but the team is going to be different. It will have to develop its own identity. It'll develop its own personality. It's the same thing every year. I'm excited for what the journey is going to be for that group."
Listerman listed CovCath as the prohibitive favorite again as the three-time defending region champion. The blue Colonels will graduate seven seniors from this year's team that is waiting to see if it will earn the chance to play in the state tournament in a few weeks. But Listerman said St. Henry and Dixie Heights could also be there challenging for the crown.
"CovCath does a good job developing kids into basketball players," Listerman said. "You're never sure who's going to be their next guy up in terms of taking their leadership role and sort of driving that team. I think for us, we'll continue to be what we are, which is a perimeter-oriented team and the three-point line is certainly going to be a major weapon for us for the next several years. We just have to continue to grow and develop. Next postseason is a long way away."
The team can not work out at school facilities as mandated by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association during a lockout period for the Coronavirus epidemic. A number of gyms in the area are also closed down. Vinson said it is up to individuals to find ways to work out and improve. But the team will be back at it once the epidemic is over.
Vinson has been offered by Northern Kentucky University. He said NCAA Division II Bellarmine University in Louisville has also been pursuing him. He's also received contact from Belmont University in Nashville (Tennessee) of the Ohio Valley Conference.