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Ninth Region, Newport will get off to traditional Day 2 start for Northern Kentucky teams down state

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

It’s almost an annual holiday – or holidays. The middle two Wednesdays in March when Kentucky’s Sweet 16 High School Basketball Tournaments tip off for the boys and girls.

What’s that, you say. You didn’t really notice it last week – or this week. Well, that’s simple.

You must be from Northern Kentucky’s Ninth Region, where most of the time, the Sweet 16 doesn’t start until Thursday.

The CovCath bench at Rupp Arena last year.

Like last week, when Cooper’s girls drew Louisville Mercy Thursday night to open state tourney play. Or this Thursday when Newport’s Wildcats will head to Rupp Arena to face Lyon County in a 1:30 p.m. game.

No mystery there. We checked with several Northern Kentucky high school basketball coaches and for one reason or another, when the KHSAA drew for the Sweet 16 brackets in February, they weren’t tuned in to the TV draw.

Maybe the mystery is gone. Because for the Ninth Region boys, this is the seventh straight year drawing a Thursday game in the bottom half of the 16-team bracket. Which as they say, is darn near mathematically impossible.

The odds against doing that – since you have a 50-50 chance each year to be one of the eight teams in the top bracket playing a Wednesday game and getting an extra day’s rest before Saturday’s championship game or drawing into a Thursday lower-bracket game – are 128-1. Way less than 1.0 percent chance of doing that.

And yet, for the seventh straight year the Ninth Region defied the odds.

“Not only Thursday but the bottom game,” said Covington Catholic Coach Scott Ruthsatz of his Colonels’ experiences the two times they won the state championship in 2014 and 2018.

“That is odd,” said Highlands Coach Kevin Listerman, whose 2021 Bluebirds have the Ninth Region’s most recent state title. “It’s a complete blind draw but you think it would flip the other way.”

Only it hasn’t. We went back 20 years – on both the boys’ and girls’ Ninth Region draws – and the results are the same. In 13 of the 20 years, the Ninth Region has drawn into the lower – or Thursday – bracket. And like the boys, the girls once had a seven-year streak – from 2005 to 2011 – when every year the Ninth Region team wound up in the Thursday game in the lower bracket.

CovCath Coach Scott Ruthsatz

And yeah, like the boys, that’s an unlikely 128-1 long shot.

“I haven’t heard anything about that,” said Matt Wilhoite, the athletic director for the Kenton County Schools and the president of the KHSAA’s governing Board of Control. “None of the coaches have ever said anything.”

Interestingly, despite the limitations of having one less day of rest and recuperation when facing the upper bracket team in the championship game, the last four Northern Kentucky state champs – CovCath twice, Highlands and Holmes in 2009 – all came out of the Thursday game and had the less rest on Saturday or Sunday, whenever the final game was.

“That might be why they’re not complaining,” Wilhoite said.

Or maybe the reason there’s no complaining, Wilhoite theorized, is because “they’re so happy to be going.”

Not that complaining will do you any good. Ruthsatz said his Colonels definitely benefited from the time when the Sweet 16 extended into Sunday without playing the semifinals and finals all on Saturday.

“In 2018, we’d have won anyway,” Ruthsatz said, “we had the horses. But “we’d have never won in 2014. Nick (Ruthsatz’ son and point guard) had one game a day in him.”

Interestingly, the team CovCath beat in those two state championship games – Scott County, the representative of Lexington and Central Kentucky) has mostly played on Wednesday in the upper bracket.

As impressive as Scott County’s record of making it to the Sweet 16 eight of the last 20 years has been, almost as impressive has been their ability to draw into the upper bracket with the Wednesday game and extra day’s rest six of those eight. An odds-defying performance for the 11th Region folks.

But not as odds-defying as that of a CovCath program that also has eight regional titles in the last 20 years. But of those eight trips to Rupp, CovCath has had to go down for a Wednesday upper-bracket game just once. The other seven times the Colonels were in the Thursday lower-bracket game.

“That is insightful,” Ruthsatz said of the numbers. “We do bring a big Thursday crowd and we’re off school on Friday so . . . “

Maybe Thursday makes sense for Northern Kentucky. And with single game tickets at $15 and single-session tickets up to $22, the crowd certainly makes sense for the KHSAA.

But “when they pull the ping pong balls, they don’t tell you the time of your game” Ruthsatz noted. Not that it matters. “We’re always at night,” he said.

Almost always anyway. “I think it’s a definite possibility,” he said of someone taking into consideration crowd appeal when determining games.

For Listerman, he’d almost give up the extra day of rest and play Thursday. “It feels like you’re in the middle of it,” he said. “If you’re in that early game Wednesday and lose, it’s almost like you weren’t there.”

Like CovCath, Highlands shrugged off coming out of the Thursday game when it hit Game 4 Saturday night for the Championship with 24 hours less rest than Elizabethtown had, and won it all, 79-60.

“They had Sam Vinson,” Ruthsatz said, “it didn’t matter when they played.”

Which is the interesting part of this whole history. In the last 20 years, Thursday teams from the lower bracket have won 11 titles, the Wednesday upper-bracket teams just nine.

Holmes in 2009 got the Ninth Region’s record to four titles out of the lower-bracket Thursday game with its 67-63 win over Louisville Central. Only Cooper, in 2017, didn’t make it but the Jaguars got to the championship game, also out of the lower bracket, before losing 67-56 to Bowling Green.

“That’s the beauty of the Sweet 16,” Listerman said. “It’s part of the magic. You come off that win in the (Saturday) afternoon game and the crowd is behind you . . . there may be something to that. There’s no good metric for it.”

North Laurel’s Reed Sheppard

“Good news for Newport,” Wilhoite said.

Maybe not such good news is that the Wildcats could be going against two of the Rupp Arena crowd favorites in Lyon County junior Travis Perry, a major target of the UK Wildcats who will be just 21 points shy of the legendary “King” Kelly Coleman’s 1956 career scoring record from Wayland in Thursday’s opening round.

Much the same story should the Wildcats make it to Saturday’s semifinals would be North Laurel’s Reed Sheppard, a UK signee and second-generation Wildcat who debuts Thursday evening at Rupp. If both North Laurel and Newport win two games (no easy task for North Laurel opening against defending state champ George Rogers Clark), Newport would be going head-to-head a second time against a Rupp Arena crowd favorite.

But if they survive until Saturday night, the Wildcats might become the crowd favorites. They’ll certainly be tourney-tested by then.

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