A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Don Owen: ‘Game of Thrones’ withdrawal? Here’s a sports remedy — visions of future, past, present

A late spring or early summer without HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is enough to send many of us into a state of withdrawal. But that’s what we’re facing as the eighth and final season of the hit cable series will not return until the summer of 2019.

Imagine the fall months without any football — college, NFL or high school. Think you’d miss the pigskin being carried/tossed around? That’s what “Game of Thrones” fans are enduring right now.

Brandon Stark

But just like “Game of Thrones” character Brandon (Bran) Stark — who is gifted with something called Greensight, the ability to perceive future, past, or contemporary but distant events in dreams — I’ve developed my own capability of seeing beyond the moment in Northern Kentucky sports. That includes past, present and future.

Unlike Bran, though, I don’t need to latch onto a strange-looking tree to begin my vision. I just have to begin typing, eyes closed, slowly transcending time and space — future, present and past. But I’ll admit to being a bit concerned by what I might see.

Even if you’re not a “Game of Thrones” fan, you’ll probably still enjoy the Northern Kentucky sports-related subjects. Here it goes. And I’m not restricted by a chronological timeline:

• March of 1967, Freedom Hall, Louisville, Ky. — Earlington High School has just called a timeout with six seconds remaining. Covington Catholic holds a 53-52 lead and is on the verge of winning the 9th Region’s first-ever state championship in basketball. Earlington must go the length of the court and tosses the inbounds pass to Justin Sharp shy of midcourt. Sharp dribbles twice and launches a desperation 35-footer that hits the right side of the backboard, but Tyrone Hopson grabs the offensive rebound in traffic. He muscles up a twisting jumper in the lane as the buzzer sounds, giving Earlington a 54-53 victory and the state championship.

The 1967 CovCath basketball team.

It appeared CovCath had won the state championship when Joe Fritz converted a shot with six seconds remaining. Fritz hauled in an offensive rebound just outside the lane and swished a short jumper to give the Colonels a 53-52 lead. The 9th Region was about to win its first state title, courtesy of CovCath, Fritz (who scored 18 points to lead the Colonels) and head coach Mote Hils. The ending of the game is fascinating because Sharp’s attempt wasn’t close — it doesn’t even hit the rim. But the ball ricochets hard off the backboard, and the opportunistic Hopson grabs the rebound and quickly releases an off-balance shot that goes in as the buzzer sounds.

“We set up our defense so Earlington couldn’t pass all the way down the floor and get off a good shot,” Hils told the media after the gut-wrenching loss. “It worked. Sharp threw up a bad shot. We had men around the basket, but it was one of those freak things. The ball bounced right into Hopson’s hands and he scored.”

CovCath had beaten powerful Louisville Central in the state semifinals, 67-55, to reach the championship game. George Schloemer poured in 21 points to lead the Colonels in that victory, while teammate Jim Cooper added 17 points. “I thought our game with Central was the best in the entire tournament,” Hils said after defeating the Louisville school.

Earlington knocked off Breathitt County by a 69-64 score in the other semifinal contest, rallying from a 50-47 deficit entering the fourth quarter. That set up the championship showdown against CovCath, which has become a legendary Sweet 16 moment because of the final six seconds.

It also represents the ultimate heartbreaking defeat — for CovCath, the 9th Region and Hils. And speaking of Mote…

Pictured is Northern Kentucky State College’s first game on Nov. 12, 1971, against Calvary College. The game was played at the old Newport High School. Shown taking a jumper for NKSC is Dan Maurer (34), who finished with 15 points and scored the first-ever basket for the Norsemen.

• November of 1971, Newport High School’s ‘Cats Den, Newport, Ky. — It’s not the Newport Wildcats playing tonight inside the ‘Cats Den. Instead, Northern Kentucky State College has just tipped off against Calvary College in the Norsemen’s first-ever basketball game. Dan Maurer wasted no time in denting the scoring column, as he just converted a basket a minute into the game. Northern Kentucky State has no on-campus gym and is playing its home games at local high schools in this inaugural season. Mote Hils, who built a basketball dynasty at CovCath, is the first Norsemen head coach and notches an easy victory in his Northern Kentucky State debut, 109-65 over Calvary.

For those who are not aware, then-Northern Kentucky State College — eventually Northern Kentucky University — didn’t have Regents Hall during its inaugural 1971-72 season of hoops. The Norsemen played home games at Newport, Holmes, Campbell County, Grant County and Conner that season. Hils guided that first Norsemen squad to 12 victories despite not having a home facility. It was completely different than the present-day BB&T Arena that NKU calls home. Can you name Northern Kentucky State’s starting lineup for that first-ever game against Calvary? Probably not, but here it is: Dan Maurer, Richard Derkson, Jim McMillan, Marvin Johnson and Mike Ballinger.

For any history buffs, there can’t be any sentimental visits to the site of that first Norsemen game in 1971 because the original ‘Cats Den no longer exists. Newport High School relocated from the west end of the city to the east end in 1980. And in case you were wondering, there can be no rematch of that first game as Calvary College has long since closed its doors and is just a memory.

• December of 2026, KHSAA state football playoffs, Lexington, Ky. — Due to the massive amount of public criticism, Kentucky has finally gone to three classes in football and reduced the number of teams in the postseason. And the new system has been a big success. The average score of first-round games this year was 29-16, a significant improvement from 2019 when the average margin was 67-10 in the opening round.

Would the KHSAA football playoffs be better with just three classifications instead of six?

The three state champions — Bowling Green in Class AAA, Franklin-Simpson in Class AA, and Beechwood in Class A — won their final contests by a combined score of 99-81, with the average margin being 33-27. Bowling Green defeated Covington Catholic in the AAA title game, 42-29. Franklin-Simpson knocked off Boyle County in the AA championship, 37-36, and Beechwood pulled out a 20-16 win over Mayfield in the A title game.

But let’s walk back 10 years to 2016 for a moment, and check out this score: 53-12. That was the average score in the first round of that year’s Class A football playoffs. Yes, like 41 points as the average margins of victory in 14 first-round games. Want examples? How about Williamsburg 69, South Floyd 6? Or check out Russellville 62, Caverna 6? Take a look at Pineville 69, Jenkins 14. And don’t forget Beechwood 56, Eminence 6, or Paintsville 59, Paris 7. During the 1A first round in 2016, the winning teams outscored the opposition by a whopping 737-175 margin.

Please, KHSAA, do something to change the watered-down state football playoffs. The ideal number of classes in Kentucky is three. Not four. Not five. Three. Why do three classes in football work better than six?

At the moment, 217 schools field football teams in Kentucky. Place the largest 72 schools by enrollment in AAA, the next 72 in AA, and the remaining 73 in A. In a revamped playoff system with three classes, only the top two teams in each district will qualify for the playoffs. That makes 32 teams from each class qualifying for the playoffs. It’s a total of 96 teams from all three classes, which is more than enough. Sorry, no more 1-9 or 0-10 teams will qualify for the playoffs. As a matter of fact, the three-class system would likely eliminate teams with 2-8 or 3-7 records from sneaking into the playoffs.

• May of 1975, “Red” Bartlett Field, Newport, Ky. — During a Class B Knothole baseball game, Interlake Steel pitcher Steve “Dip” Redmond delivers a pitch against Newport City Schools. A scrawny left-handed batter swings and lines a clean single into left-center field — the first hit of his career. After taking a huge turn around first base, the scrawny kid looks up into the grassy hill, where his parents, sister and brother are applauding. Later in the game, a tall, lean Interlake Steel player named Steve Uehlein smashes a home run over the fence in left that bounces off a swimming pool in the backyard that borders Bartlett Field. Despite the single (and another hit later in the game), Interlake Steel — a powerhouse in Knothole baseball — rolls to an easy win against Newport City Schools.

That was fun, but seeing Uehlein knock that pitch into outer space was a bit painful. I was the scrawny left-handed batter who picked up his first-ever hit that night, as I had never played Knothole baseball until that season. I didn’t know it at the time, but “Dip” Redmond (Highlands) and Uehlein (NewCath) would also emerge as solid basketball performers in high school. Me? I wasn’t much of an athlete, making that single off Redmond and reaching base against Interlake Steel even more special.

Doug Schloemer

• March of 1977, Evans Fieldhouse, Covington, Ky. — It’s the 9th Region championship game, and Newport holds a 76-75 lead over Holmes in the final minute. The Wildcats have already beaten Holmes twice this season and many people believe Newport can make a serious run at the state championship — something no 9th Region team has ever won at this time. Newport has missed the front end of two straight bonus opportunities, giving Holmes a chance. Doug Schloemer of Holmes just drove baseline and attempted a shot that was blocked by David “Beater” Schlosser, and the ball apparently went off Schloemer. One official says Newport ball, the other just ran in and signaled Holmes ball. They decide it’s a jump ball, and Holmes wins the tap with less than 10 seconds on the clock. Holmes inbounds the ball with five seconds remaining, and Schloemer hits a 12-foot jumper from the baseline with a second left to give Holmes a 77-76 victory, denying Newport the 9th Region title and a chance to win the state championship.

Just like Brandon Stark yelled at his father in an attempt to change the past, I wanted to do something here to alter this outcome. But nothing worked. Schloemer made the clutch shot with enormous pressure, while Newport missed two costly front ends of the bonus. It proved to be the difference in Holmes repeating as regional champion and Newport suffering a devastating loss that haunted many Wildcat fans — myself included — for years.

Holmes was outstanding with Schloemer, Roy Meyer, Eddie Ross, Mark Moeves, Todd Riley, etc. But Newport fielded a team that could’ve won the state with 6-foot-6 center Mitch McIntosh — the dominant big man in the 9th Region — ultra-quick guards Leonard Slaughter and Darrell “Bean” Bedford, plus talented forwards in Schlosser, Clint Miller and Billy Weier. If only they had made a couple of those late free throws…

NKU volleyball players celebrate after capturing the 1999 NCAA Division II Great Lakes Region championship with a 17-15, 15-7, 8-15, 21-19 victory over Northwood.

• November of 1999, Regents Hall, Highland Heights, Ky. —NKU just repeated as NCAA Division II Great Lakes Region volleyball champions with a 17-15, 15-7, 8-15, 21-19 win over Northwood. But this four-game victory was anything but routine. Especially the fourth game, which provided the Regents Hall crowd with some of the most exciting, exhausting and exhilarating play in the history of NKU volleyball. One minute it was Jenny Jeremiah (22 kills, 27 digs) coming up with a key dig or a clutch kill. The next minute it was Jessica Buroker (19 kills, 26 digs) doing the same. As a result, NKU outlasted the Timberwolves to extend its winning streak to 25 consecutive matches. NKU also won its 34th straight match in Regents Hall and improved to 32-1 heading into the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

Without question, one of the most memorable and intense athletic contests ever played in Regents Hall. NKU head coach Mary Biermann reloaded a powerhouse volleyball program that had been built by Jane Meier, and this 1999 squad might have captured the school’s first-ever national championship had it not been for a major roadblock: BYU-Hawaii. In the national semifinals, BYU-Hawaii ended the Norse’s quest for a title by sweeping NKU in three sets at Battle Creek, Michigan. NKU finished with a 33-2 record in 1999, the best mark in program history, and also won the Great Lakes Valley Conference championship. Buroker and Jeremiah were named AVCA All-Americans, and NKU advanced to the national semifinals despite having lost defensive specialist Liz Lamping to a knee injury a month earlier. Would a healthy Lamping made a difference against BYU-Hawaii? Yes, but probably not enough to defeat the tall, experienced Seasiders that particular evening in Michigan. Four months later, the Norse women’s basketball team claimed NKU’s first-ever national title by outlasting North Dakota State in overtime at Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

• July of 2019, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series finale — We’ve discovered a stunning connection between Bran, Jon Snow and the two surviving dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal. It’s all adding up because of the direwolves, how Bran and Jon both . . . that’s it! Melisandre the Red Priestess has just revealed that Jaqen H’ghar is actually Rhaegar Targaryen, and that the Night King can only be stopped if —

Sorry, I don’t want to know the ending until next season. Besides, the three-eyed raven just told me that non-sports spoilers are forbidden. Enjoy the looming summer, but don’t forget — winter is coming.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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