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CovCath, Highlands, Covington come together for a ‘TB Strong’ moment; Colonels victorious 71-51

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

“With a spirit that will not die . . .”

That’s the first line of the Covington Catholic Fight Song that the Colonels, their fans, their rivals at Highlands and their hosts at Covington Holmes made come alive Tuesday night.

A spirit that’s far more than upbeat lyrics — much more – when it becomes real life.

CovCath sixth man Ayden Link on a drive to the basket as he became a star after stepping up to a starting role with 16 points plus outstanding defense.(Photos by Dale Dawn)

What started out as a T-shirt sale and fundraising drive for CovCath senior Thomas Burns, diagnosed Oct. 12 with a rare form of bone cancer – Ewing Sarcoma – morphed into three communities coming together in the best way for the best reason.

Northern Kentucky at its finest.

A private Catholic school from Kenton County, its archrival public school from Campbell County and an urban school from Covington did everything in their power to make this game happen here at Holmes’ David Evans Fieldhouse. That allowed at least 1,000 people more to see the game and contribute to the twin funds for the Burns family and cancer research than they could have at CovCath.

“Tonight we are all on the same team,” the CovCath announcer said as the Burns family was introduced at halftime and came down to the floor.

“Just to see him sitting up there in the stands smiling,” CovCath star Evan Ipsaro said of Burns after his game-high 29 points led the top-ranked Colonels (14-2) to a 71-51 rout of the Highlands Bluebirds (14-6), No. 2 in the KHSAA Ninth Region RPI ratings behind CovCath.

“This is a team of eight seniors,” CovCath Coach Scott Ruthsatz said. “They wanted this so bad for Thomas. It’s the first time we’ve seen him.”

“Thomas is a friend of ours, it sucks for him,” Ipsaro said of a classmate he “hangs out with” but who hasn’t been able to attend school because of his cancer and treatment.

CovCath leading scorer Evan Ipsaro, No. 2, on one of his powerful moves to the basket.

“I’m going to tell ‘em it was electric,” Burns said is how he’ll describe this night when he goes back for his next session of chemotherapy. “It really makes it special to see all these people in one room, all this support. It does make it easier for me knowing that’s there.”

It’s been there since his senior class buddies formed a TB Strong Committee to sell T-shirts with his image and that message. Then the Highlands fans found out about it. Then so did Tom Gamble and the people who put on the St. Elizabeth Healthcare Game of the Month. And then Holmes said come on down, we’d love to have you.

And come they did. By 6:45 for the 7:30 p.m. varsity game, the parking lots were overflowing. And the fans kept coming, with a large turnout from Fort Thomas.

One of those was 91-year-old Fred Moeves, a star guard back in the pre-Oscar Robertson days at UC, who went on to a lifetime as a beloved coach and administrator in Northern Kentucky schools.

His great-grandson, Brandon Moeves, hit a couple of back-to-back early threes that had Highlands within three, 15-12, late in the first quarter.

CovCath Coach Scott Ruthsatz in his TB Strong T-shirt

“Highlands is hard to guard,” Ruthsatz said, “they spread you out. We got exposed that way against Conner (CovCath’s only regional loss in their last game) . . . we’ve got to be able to get stops.”

And thanks to super-stopper Ayden Link, a starter for the injured Brady Hussey on this night but normally the first guy off the bench, they did, winning the “stops” battle, 40-29.

Much of that was a result of Link, a long, athletic and quick-strong 6-foot-1 who plays bigger than that, for erasing Highlands’ leading scorer Will Herald, holding the 20.3-ppg scorer to a mere five with just one three-pointer. Herald came into the game with 70 threes this season.

“I got the inspiration from my dad who was an off-the-bench defensive guy,” Link said of his father who played for the Colonels 30 years ago.

But Ayden also poured in 16 points, second only to Ipsaro, on six-of-11 shooting including two-for-two from three, with a game-high eight rebounds.

“The scoring came easy,” Ayden said of the 16 points. Going against Herald was tough.

“It’s next man up,” Ruthsatz said of the job Link did. “You can’t let Herald get going.”

CovCath’s Noah Johnson works inside for a layup against Highlands.

If there were any obvious differences in the stats, it was CovCath’s 17-7 edge in assists as the pass-first Colonels got the ball most of the time to the right place with Ipsaro’s explosive cuts to the basket showing him with 13-of-20 shooting as the Colonels his on 30 of 63 for 47.6 percent.

Highlands, meanwhile, shot just 33.3 percent (16 of 48) with Seth Ryan’s 13 points and eight rebounds leading the way with Moeves adding 11.

“No snark on Highlands,” said the 6-foot, 190-pound Ipsaro who was unable to be contained on many of his power drives to the basket, “but they try to outscore you. When you can hold them down, . . . “

But this game won’t be remembered as much for the scoreboard, even if the Highlands students resorted to the “Just like football” taunt after a fourth-quarter score earning a “Hey, hey, goodbye” response from the CovCath kids.

It will be remembered for all those nearly 1,000 gold and blue TB Strong T-shirts with a terrific caricature of Thomas. And for how the Point Arc people contributed all the labor to print up the shirts.

“It’s an amazing outpouring of support,” Julie Burns, mother of Thomas said to the crowd at halftime. “We are truly blessed to live in a community that shows up in a big way . . . Thomas doesn’t feel alone in his fight thanks to you. We are not alone. Thomas will fight and become an example of how communities fight cancer.”

As for the final line in the CovCath Fight Song, we can hear it now:

“. . . and go onward to victory.”

HIGHLANDS 12 15 11 13—51
COVCATH 17 19 20 15—71
HIGHLANDS (14-6): 4-0-5-13, Listerman 0-0-0-0, Hicks 0-0-0-0, Class 2-0-3-7, Moeves 3-3-2-11, Graham 0-0-0-0, DeSylva 0-0-0-0, Herald 1-1-0-5, Vinson 2-1-2-7, Kirst 0-0-0-0, Benke 3-0-2-8, Yelton 0-0-0-0, TOTALS: 16-5-14-21.
COVCATH: Ipsaro 13-1-2-29, A. McGillis 4-2-0-10, K. McGillis 4-2-0-10, Stewart 0-0-0-0, Johnson 1-0-0-2, Tranter 0-0-0-0, Greis 0-0-0-0, Fryman 0-0-0-0, Ruthsatz 0-0-0-0, Link 6-2-2-16, Detzel 1-0-0-2, Kennedy 0-0-0-0, S. Jones 0-0-0-0, A. Jones 1-0-0-2, TOTALS: 30-7-4-71.

Thomas Burns joins his CovCath classmates to thank them for the ‘TB Strong’ campaign.

Photos by Dale Dawn

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