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Four Highlands state champions are headed to college just down the road in Highland Heights at Northern Kentucky University and all four were given a champions reception in Fort Thomas last weekend.
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Sam Vinson and Luke Muller (basketball), Maggie Schroeder (cross-country) and Abby Bach (bowling) are all headed to NKU to play their respective sports.
Vinson, a senior point guard, came to David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Tuesday celebrating the first boys basketball state championship in school history for the Highlands Bluebirds.
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Vinson may not have received the prestigious Kentucky Mr. Basketball award, but Vinson did win the MaxPreps Kentucky Basketball Player of the Year Honor and may receive some other awards.
Many hoped he'd become the second one in school history after Ross Neltner won it in 2003.
"It is what it is," Vinson said. "I had a feeling that I wasn't going to get it. I would love to have it. But winning that (state championship) gold trophy with all my brothers on this team is the most important thing to me. I'd much rather do that than win Mr. Kentucky Basketball."
Lexington Catholic senior guard Ben Johnson won the Mr. Kentucky Basketball award. Writers across the Commonwealth of Kentucky voted on it weeks before the Sweet 16 State Tournament. But Maysville Ledger Independent Sports Editor Evan Dennison admitted he'd have voted for Vinson on Twitter if the vote took place after the state tournament. Following the state semifinal win over Ashland, Tomcat Head Coach Jason Mays said he voted Vinson for Kentucky Mr. Basketball.
Johnson, an NCAA Division II Bellarmine University in Louisville commit, averaged 27.3 points per game and Vinson averaged 22.3. The Knights entered the postseason 19-1 overall having missed a number of games as a result of Coronavirus 2019 precautions. LexCath lost 81-68 to Lexington Dunbar in the 43rd District championship game before losing 101-97 at eventual 9th Region champion Madison Central in the 11th Region quarterfinals.
Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman pointed out Johnson is very deserving of the award. LexCath spent a good part of the season as the top-ranked team in the state. The Knights beat the Bluebirds, 73-57 in Lexington on Jan. 17. LexCath last won the 11th Region in 2015.
"There's no great way to do it. Am I biased? Absolutely," Listerman said. "Sam would have been very deserving. They do it in very different ways. Sometimes, it's hard to compare the role that each player is asked to fulfill on their team. I don't know that there's a great process. In this case, they really wanted to be about the season. If you're playing to get awards, your focus is on the wrong thing. Sam absolutely focused on what he needed to do to lead our team and that's why we were able to get where we got to."
The Bluebirds finished 30-4 winning 21 straight on their way to the state championship. Vinson had a big role in helping Highlands hit a school-record 26 assists in two games this season and help the Bluebirds average 1.27 points per possession.
Vinson and senior forward Luke Muller will head to Northern Kentucky University down the road this fall playing basketball and golf respectively. There are some things they want to accomplish before their first practices with the Norse of the Horizon League.
Listerman played for the Norse and legendary Head Coach Ken Shields from 1995 to 2000. Listerman and Shields helped the Norse Men's Basketball team to two NCAA Division II runner-up finishes in 1996 and 1997.
"The first thing for them is to understand that they're going to struggle at some point," Listerman said. "The adjustment to college athletics and the level at which you have to compete is another major step. You're going to hit that point where you start to question a lot of things about where you are, if you belong among other things. You just have to push through that. You have to go back to your training and say, 'I understand the process.' You have to stay true to the process, keep grinding and you'll overcome that. For me, that was something that I wasn't totally prepared for when I went to Northern. Fortunately, I had my brother (Andy) and some great teammates to help me through that."
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"I think I can go in there and help them with all I do with my facilitating, finding open players, driving and knocking down shots," Vinson said. "I'm excited to get out there. I start June 7. We're just going to get after it in the weight room working to become bigger, quicker and stronger."
The Norse run a mixture of man and match-up zone defenses. Vinson also said they like to run motion on offense and run up and down the floor. That has been a specialty at Highlands the past two years.
"We have a lot of tall, lengthy dudes," Vinson said. "It really causes a lot of problems for other teams. I'm ready to get out there and hopefully help them win another championship."
Northern Kentucky was not able to play in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Horizon League crown in 2020 because of Coronavirus 2019. The Norse lost 72-57 to eventual national runner-up Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and 79-70 to the University of Kentucky in the same round in 2017. A win in the NCAA Tournament would be the first in program history in Division I.
"I've been watching that tournament ever since I was a little kid," Vinson said. "Hopefully having the ability to play in that and win one would be incredible. It's a dream of mine to play in that tournament. Hopefully, we can eventually play in that."
Muller helped the Highlands boys golf team to region championships in 2020 and 2018. The Bluebirds finished sixth in the state tournament this past fall.
Northern Kentucky's men's golf team finished second in the Horizon League Tournament in 2019. Ryle graduate Jacob Poore won the Horizon League individual crown in 2018. Head Coach Daryl Landrum is in his 26th season leading the Norse.
"The biggest thing when you go play college golf is you have to believe that you should be there," said Bert Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "It's the best of the best. When you're in high school, a third of the people in the field are good golfers. When you get to college, probably 85 to 95 percent of the people there are good golfers so you've got to have that confidence in yourself and your game that you belong there. Because if you don't think you belong, that's when things start going south and you don't play as well as you should."
Teams play tournaments in the fall and spring at the college level. Muller said teams play 36 holes the first day then 18 the second day and mix in some matches. Muller's career best is 67 on 18 holes in high school and 65 playing with friends averaging to five below par.
"I know I have some pretty good teammates coming in with me and already there," Muller said. "I'm just planning to go there and helping the team out. Winning a Horizon League championship is the goal for the year. It's going to take a lot of work. But I think we have guys that are ready to work for it."
Bach won the first girls bowling state championship in school history and Schroeder won her second Class AA girls cross country crown in three seasons in the fall. Bowling is a club sport at NKU.
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Schroeder helped Highlands to Class AA state championships as a seventh grader in 2015 and as a freshman in 2017. Highlands scored 112 points this past fall finishing state runner-up. The Christian Academy of Louisville won it with 97.
"Maggie Schroeder is Highlands girls cross country," said Brian Alessandro, Highlands Head Coach. "She is without question the best runner in our storied program. On top of her athletic performances, she is equally strong in the classroom and as a young person. As a former coach and alum of the NKU Track and Cross Country programs, I am confident Maggie will establish herself as one of the top runners in the Horizon League. Her motivation in this sport is unwavering."
Schroeder posted a time of 19 minutes, 16.87 seconds to win the Class AA individual title this year. The runner-up in CAL junior Addi Dewey posted a time of 19:42.01. Schroeder's winning time in 2018 was 19:07.68.
"To me, running at Northern Kentucky University means running for a team that not only allows me to stay close to my community, but also add to a new community as well," Schroeder said. "With NKU being such a 'young' college (founded in 1968) in the real of all colleges, there aren't as many traditions as an older college might have, and I'm eager to meet the team and try to form some traditions as well."
Muller averaged 16.9 points per game this past season. Muller led the Bluebirds making 122-of-266 three-point tries for 45.9 percent. Muller still plans to play basketball to help with his golf career at NKU.
"It's definitely a good way to work out. Hopefully, I can keep playing intramurals and three-on-three tournaments," Muller said. "We're going to have strength and condition obviously with golf. But getting on the court is always good to keep moving and stay in shape."
The NKU women's cross country team finished fifth in the Horizon League meet on March 4. The season moved to the spring as a result of Coronavirus 2019. The Norse finished sixth the previous two years.