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Thursday, April 8, 2021

State Championship Sinking In for Highlands Players, Coaches

Bluebirds Finished Season with 30 Wins

PHOTO: Dale Dawn. The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team celebrates the state championship at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Highlands returns 11 players from that team that dressed for the tournament next year.

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Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball sophomore guard Will Herald and the rest of the players and coaches came back to Fort Thomas on Sunday just one day after the Bluebirds won the first Sweet 16 State Tournament crown in school history.

But Herald later ventured down to Longboat Key just south of the Tampa-Saint Petersburg (Florda) area for Spring Break. Days after the four wins at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman, Herald and even junior forward Oliver Harris agreed the idea they're state champions may slowly sink in.

"I still can't get my mind around what happened," Herald said. "I remember as a kid just thinking about how we'll have a chance to win the region title one day and we did that this year. Going into the state tournament, I had some thoughts about how if we could win the state tournament, that would just make my day. I just want to thank God for getting the chance to even play there."

Highlands finished 30-4 winning 21 straight to bring home the crown. The Bluebirds not only made it to the last day of the postseason for the first time since 1997, they won 30 games besting the 28 wins from last year's team that lost 59-54 in the 9th Region championship game to Covington Catholic.

Listerman finished his eighth season as the head coach of the Bluebirds. Highlands made the region tournament in his first season in 2014, but did not go back to the region tournament again until 2019. The 2019 team lost to Cooper in the first round of the region tournament.

"I keep telling myself we're state champions," Listerman said. "But it's always followed by a giggle. I don't know what the right response is. I've never finished the season on a win. I'm still smiling, trying to reflect as much as possible, stay on top of text messages and social media most importantly saying thank you to the people that need to be thanked for what was an incredible season and an unbelievable run through the state tournament. The biggest thing for me is to share that gratitude that was a part of making this tournament a success for us."

Those texts include his family. Listerman and his brother Andy helped Covington Catholic to the 9th Region crown in 1992. But the Colonels lost in the first round of the state tournament to Lexington Catholic. His niece Kelsey Listerman just finished her senior season playing for the Highlands girls hoops team and helped the girls soccer team to a third straight region championship this past fall.

"I'm super excited for them," Kelsey Listerman said. "I know it's something he's wanted to cross off his bucket list for a while. It's exciting for him and those guys to get it."

Some of the players were glad to bring home that first gold trophy for their relatives who played on one of the previous 12 teams to make it to state. Will Herald's uncle Joe Herald played on the 1997 state runner-up team in addition to the 1998 and 1999 Highlands region championship teams. Junior guard Abe Hils is the grandson of the legendary Highlands and Northern Kentucky University Head Coach Ken Shields.

Shields and Kevin Listerman helped the Northern Kentucky University Norse to two Division II runner-up finishes in 1996 and 1997. Highlands won five region championships during Shields' tenure. But the Bluebirds won just one state tournament game in those five trips beating the now-defunct Louisville Westport, 68-62 before losing 58-52 to Christian County in the quarterfinals in 1979.

Kevin Listerman has always said the mark of good teams is consistency. He firmly believes state championships do not measure whether programs are succeeding or not.

"I'm much more concerned about process and having kids really, especially when they get to high school, buy into the process of what makes us successful of doing the work day in and day out," Kevin Listerman said. "Somewhere along the line in this postseason, I talked to our guys about champions are not about winning a game or a particular tournament. It's about how you approach every single day. That's really the mindset that I'm going to focus on and we've focused on that for the last several years."

Kevin Listerman credited the players, coaches and parents for taking the Coronavirus 2019 protocols seriously. The delayed season started Jan. 4. The Bluebirds lost a few games because of cases on opponents, but not because of cases on the team. 

Kevin Listerman's biggest concern was how the Bluebirds would handle the tournament format. But he credited the players for being able to mentally reset quickly for the next game. Highlands played at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Thursday, April 1 against Muhlenberg County. They received plenty of rest before facing McCracken County that Friday at 8 p.m. They had to come back less than 24 hours later to face Ashland at 2 p.m. before tipping off four hours later at 8 p.m. against Elizabethtown in the state title game.

"Just because somebody came up positive, doesn't mean they made poor decisions," Kevin Listerman said. "But (we were) really trying to limit what we were doing and how they were doing things off the floor so that we could have a season on the floor. I know they didn't isolate themselves in a bubble. But I really think our kids took it to heart to try to do what they needed to do to stay healthy and play basketball. I think the parents really bought into that as well. It took everybody doing their absolute best to have the full season we did and to stay healthy. I can thank our school administration, our athletic department (enough). It takes so many people to have the success that we did."

Highlands graduates two starters on this team in guard Sam Vinson and forward Luke Muller. Both are headed to Northern Kentucky University to play basketball and golf respectively this fall. Vinson averaged 22.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game and Muller averaged 16.9.

The Bluebirds graduate two other seniors in forward Bryson Cody and guard Daniel Buchanan. Buchanan said he'll miss the camaraderie with the guys in the locker room cracking jokes.

"Throughout the season, we had to keep everyone in line making sure they were doing all the little things to make us successful," Buchanan said. "Bryson and I did that throughout the whole season."

Listerman said he would not mind this being the beginning of a great era of Highlands boys basketball. He has two boys in middle school in Vinnie and Dom. He hopes this title will inspire boys that age and younger to do great things when they get to high school.

"I want every kid to think he can play at Highlands. They can be the next Sam Vinson," Kevin Listerman said. "That they can be the next Will Herald. Those are great, great guys to emulate. I want to see your team year after year, which is mark of a good program, play with a high level of energy, a high level of execution. Sometimes, things work out like it did this year and you have an unbelievable run. Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way. You can be disappointed in the result a little bit. But that doesn't change the way you approach what you do."

Will Herald averaged 13.1 points per game and Harris averaged 8.2. The third returning starter in junior guard Zach Barth averaged 10.3 per game. The Bluebirds return 11 players that dressed varsity this year.

"When you lose players like Sam and Luke, it's always a challenge with the players you have coming back to get players to take their roles," Will Herald said. "Our returning players are going to have to step up. Sam and Luke are great players. We have to learn to play without them. I think that with enough hard work, we should be able to do that just fine."

Highlands went six or seven deep in many games this year. Junior guard Leyton Read and junior forward Cole Kocher gave the Bluebirds quality minutes off the bench. The Bluebirds could have a deeper rotation next season.

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"I think each team is unique in that some years, you go nine, 10 deep,"
Kevin Listerman said. "Some years, you shorten it to six and seven. It just depends on that particular group and what their strengths are. For our team this year, it was about keeping as much offense on the floor as possible. As the season went on, not only did we maintain a high level of consistency on the offensive end, but our defense got significantly better over the last six, seven weeks of the season. That's a tribute to those kids recognizing that was the place we needed to grow the most and really putting an emphasis on that."

Veteran Elizabethtown Head Coach James Haire said he did not know how Highlands lost a game this year after the Bluebirds beat the Panthers, 79-60 in the title game. Teams with size gave the Bluebirds problems in the early part of the season.

"We just have to get bigger, faster and stronger as well as improve our skills," Harris said. "You can't really control how much taller you get. I know the older guys will work hard and I'm sure the younger guys will follow."

Teams have workouts all year long. But season practices normally start in October.

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