Birds ride wave of victory to the end, win program’s first State Championship

With 30 seconds left on the clock, the Birds had possession of the ball. From Highlands’ side of the arena, cheers rang out. Senior Sam Vinson walked the ball down the court, a smile plastered on both his and his teammates’ faces. Already behind by 19 points with a score of 79-60, Highlands, the Elizabethtown Panthers knew they stood no chance. Through tear-glazed eyes, both teams first shook hands as a show of respect, then congregated separately with their own teams, hugging and high-fiving until the buzzer sounded.

When the buzzer finally sounded, the arena erupted. Vinson threw the ball down and ran to his team. The boys jumped wildly, screaming in victory. The Highlands boys varsity basketball team had won the KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen state tournament. For the first time in Highlands history, the team was state champions.


The boys basketball program’s first championship was when they won the Regional Tournament in 1923. They were Regional champions again in 1924, after which they went on to be State runner-ups. The boys were Reginal champions again in 1934.

It wasn’t until 45 years later under the leadership of head coach Ken Shields that the Birds were the 1979 Regional champions. That year, they were also State quarter-finalists. Shields’ perseverance and leadership allowed Highlands to continue its success. In 1982, 1983, 1986, and 1987, the Birds were Regional champions. Shields went on to coach at Northern Kentucky University in 1988.

From 1997-99, the Birds won three straight Regional championships under John Messmer. They were State quarter-finalists in 1998 and State runner-ups in 1997.

The Birds’ last championship title was in 2001. For 20 years, the boys varsity basketball program layed dormant—strong but silent.

The current head coach is Kevin Listerman. Named to this position in 2013, Listerman and his staff have worked hard to train their athletes and perfect their strategy. The Birds’ recent State championship is the furthest the program has ever come, and Listerman couldn’t be prouder of his team.

“I was so ecstatic for the players and our staff to get the ultimate reward for their sacrifice & effort,” Listerman said, recounting his feelings after the buzzer signifying their victory sounded. “I love all my players. This was a special team and group who played their collective best on the biggest stage. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

In addition to this momentous accomplishment, the boys won a few other awards. Vinson was named Most Valuable Player and senior Luke Muller and junior Zach Barth were named to the All-Tournament Team.

Vinson is also nominated for Kentucky’s 2021 Mr. Basketball award. Up against 16 other Boy Players of the Year from their respective regions, Vinson is the ninth region’s player of the year. The winner will be announced during a virtual ceremony scheduled for April 18.

After graduation, the four seniors on the team have big plans. Vinson will attend Northern Kentucky University, undecided in his major but playing basketball for them. Muller will also attend Northern Kentucky University, also undecided in his major but playing golf for them. Senior Daniel Buchanan will attend the University of Cincinnati, majoring in Business Analytics. Senior Bryson Cody will attend Northern Kentucky University and is undecided in his major.

As for the future of the boys varsity basketball program, Listerman and current players all have high expectations.

“Each team has its own journey to take,” Listerman, excited to start the journey towards another state championship with his team, said. “We will start working on that in the end of April. We have some young players who need to grow and take on the leadership that will be vacated by our seniors.”

Those not graduating this year, such as sophomore Will Herald, know the shoes of the seniors need to be filled before heading into next season.

“It is important we help fill in the roles that Sam and Luke had this year,” Herald said. “At the same time, I have a lot of confidence in our team this upcoming year, we have a great chance to win a lot of games.”

This year’s seniors are confident in their teammates and next year’s prospects, though. They know Listerman is an amazing coach and their teammates are dedicated players who will fill their roles well.

Vinson, excited to watch some of their games next year, said, “There will have another great team next year. They have a lot of talent and experience and will make some noise next year.”