If the boys’ high school basketball season plays out as the local coaches expect, the Ninth Region tournament at BB&T Arena will be a star-studded event in March.
The top three teams in the Northern Kentucky Boys Basketball Coaches Association Preseason Poll are led by the top three players in the player rankings. Covington Catholic, led by last year’s Division I co-player of the Year Cole VonHandorf, is ranked first. Junior Sean McNeil, who co-player with VonHandorf last season, leads second-ranked Cooper. And Newport Central Catholic, led by senior Ben Weyer, is ranked third heading into the season.
“It will definitely be interesting,” CovCath coach Scott Ruthsatz said. “A lot of those top guys play on really good AAU teams and are very competitive. It’s going to be fun to watch, especially the matchup between Sean and Cole, because they’re probably going to guard each other.”
All three stars have drawn attention from college scouts.
After averaging 18.2 points per game last year, VonHandorf has offers from DePaul, Northern Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Lipscomb, and Winthrop. McNeil averaged 17.7 points per game as a sophomore, and is receiving interest from schools such as Bellarmine, Lipscomb, Air Force and Alabama-Huntsville. Weyer averaged 15.3 points per game last year, and has signed with Division II power Bellarmine.
“It’s always been my dream. Just growing up, I’ve always wanted to lead the team,” VonHandorf said. “All my guys count on me, so I like that. I think it’s the first time our team has been ranked first in the preseason since I’ve been here, so that’s a good feeling. Now, we just have to go out and prove it.”
CovCath is coming off consecutive Ninth Region titles, but will have to replace two of its top three scorers from last year’s team in Bo Schuh and Cooper Theobald. In addition to VonHandorf, look for senior Andy Flood to make the jump from role player last season to senior standout this year.
“Everyday we get in the gym, whether it be weekends or whatever,” said Flood. “That’s what comes with rebuilding after losing four out of our top six from last year. We’re just getting our new guys in the gym, and repetition is what’s going to make us good.”
In addition to those upperclassmen, the Colonels are expecting big contributions from point guard Aiden Ruthsatz and versatile swing man CJ Fredrick, both sophomores. And the Colonels are loaded with young post players. Junior Hunter Ziegelmeyer is listed at 6-foot-7, 265-pounds and sophomore Jake Walter is 6-foot-11, 273-pounds.
The Colonels know their road to reach the Ninth Region tournament will be a difficult one. They’ll be challenged by preseason No. 5 Holmes and No. 10 Holy Cross. Holmes returns one of the region’s top players in Markel McClendon, who averaged 14.5 points per game last year. Holy Cross returns senior Tyler Bezold, who was ranked ninth on the coaches’ preseason players list.
Cooper is the only team out of the 33rd District that cracked the coaches’ preseason top 10. However, with the natural county rivalries that exist inside the Jaguars’ district with Conner, Ryle and Boone County; coach Tim Sullivan knows the road through the 33rd won’t be easy.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Sullivan said of the 33rd District. “The kids know each other so well, the district tournament comes down to a tough play here or a hustle play there. It’s nice to have a kid like Sean (McNeil), but the teams inside our district are going to have entire game-plans designed to stop him, so the rest of our kids know it’s about them stepping up and rising to the occasion.”
The Jaguars lost a lot of size from last year’s team, but Sullivan expects a group of young and athletic scorers to make up the difference. Sophomore Chris McNeil, Sean’s brother, looks ready to run the team at point guard, allowing Sullivan to move sophomore guard Adam Kunkel and junior wing Dante Hendrix off the ball.
NewCath has the most to replace out of the top contenders after losing three of its top four scorers from last year. However, Newport could prove to be a more worthy contender for the district crown than the Breds have seen in recent years. The Wildcats are ranked seventh in the preseason coaches’ poll, and boast senior guard Ethan Snapp, who averaged 18.7 points per game last year.
Dixie has won the last three 34th District titles, but the coaches have St. Henry ranked ahead of the Colonels. The Crusaders, led by seniors Adam Goetz and Paul Wallenhorst, are ranked ninth, while the Colonels are unranked.
In the 10th Region, the 37th District should be a battle at the top. Campbell County, led by 6-foot-8 senior Matt Wilson, is ranked fourth, while Scott, led by junior guard Jake Ohmer, is ranked sixth. Wilson signed with Army this fall, and averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds last year. Ohmer averaged 22.2 points last season, and broke the single-game record twice by scoring 42 against Paul Laurence Dunbar on December 6 and then 51 against Stewart Creek (TN) a few weeks later. Brossart may be a tier below, but the Mustangs are always competitive. They return their second-leading scorer from last year in senior Jackson Crawford (11.3 ppg).
In the Eighth Region, Simon Kenton is ranked eighth. The Pioneers are led by senior forward Austin Fries, who averaged 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a junior. They’ll be looking to avenge last year’s loss to Grant County in the 32nd District championship. Grant is reloading after graduating the top three scorers off of last year’s team in Jordan Saylor, Seth Adkins and Austin Johnson. Senior guard Jordan Rose returns after averaging 8.1 points per game last year. Williamstown could be a sleeper with junior guard Jon Jump (19.4 ppg) and sophomore guard Breenan Stanley (17.4 ppg). The Demons will first have to hurdle Walton-Verona, who finished third in the district last year with a 14-14 record. Walton is looking for 6-foot-9 big man Elliott Brook to make a big jump.
TOP 10 to Watch
Cole VonHandorf, junior guard, CovCath
Sean McNeil, juior guard, Cooper
Ben Weyer, senior forward, NewCath
Jake Ohmer, junior guard, Scott
Ethan Snapp, senior guard, Newport
Matt Wilson, senior center, Campbell County
Adam Goetz, senior guard, St. Henry
Andy Flood, senior guard, CovCath
Tyler Bezold, senior forward, Holy Cross
Markel McClendon, senior guard, Holmes