Till The Fat Lady Sings

Chapter 1 - Dedicated To The One I Love

Fort Thomas Highlands was a football school.  To this day their fight song implores the team to “go up and down the
field.”  From 1934 to 1979 basketball was merely something to do to help bridge the gap between the end of one
football season and the start-up of the next.  The Bluebirds as they are known, had never won a regional basketball
championship during that forty-five year span, compared to winning ten football state championships during that
same timeframe.

On Saturday night March 10th, 1979 the Highlands Bluebirds put themselves in position to end that draught.  They
had advanced to the championship game of the 9th Region tournament, where they would face the home-standing
Holmes Bulldogs, coached by the legendary Reynolds Flynn, in front of a full house with a trip to the “Sweet Sixteen”
State Tournament on the line.  

The challengers were coached by thirty-eight year old Kenney Shields who was serving as a varsity high school
coach in his fourteenth season and in his fourth year as the head coach of the Highlands Bluebirds.  Shields, an
affable Irishman, who possesses a robust belly laugh and the ability to spew clichés quicker than a comedian can
dole out one-liners, was looking for his first regional championship as a high school coach.  

Shields had started his coaching career about a mile farther south on Fort Thomas Avenue back in 1965 at St.
Thomas, an obscure Catholic parish high school with a minute enrollment, as a twenty-four year old head coach with
one year of coaching high school freshmen basketball on his resume.  It was there that he had made great sport of
beating these same Highlands Bluebirds year in and year out on the hardwood despite having a much smaller
athlete pool to choose from.   

His coaching staff consisted primarily of old friends and associates from his St. Thomas days, who had joined him at
Highlands after St. Thomas High School closed their doors in 1976.  Mike Listerman a former player from St. Thomas
who had returned to his alma mater to coach, and John Messmer who had succeeded Shields at St. Thomas, were
joined by Bill “Buster” Petty, a veteran of the previous Highlands basketball regime.  Mike served as the freshmen
coach, Petty coached the Junior Varsity squad, and John Messmer schooled a junior high team.  This group was
much more than a coaching staff - they were a fraternity, who along with their wives would form a lifelong self-
sustaining social club.  But on this night they would pool their mental resources in order to put their team in a
position to accomplish its goal – that of knocking off the defending 9th Region champs, and ending the 45 year
hiatus from the State Tournament for the Highlands Bluebirds.   

The Birds had earned their way into the regional championship game by winning the 36th District tournament and
taking out Erlanger Lloyd, 56-42, and Newport Catholic, 72-64, thus far in the regionals.  

The task before them was daunting even though the Birds had managed to take the Bulldogs to overtime in their two
previous encounters that season.  Take into account that despite the fact that the Bluebirds had hung 22 straight
losses on the Dogs on the gridiron, Highlands had not defeated the Covington inner city powerhouse in basketball
since 1966 and that Holmes was riding a 42 home game winning streak.  The Bulldogs also had claimed seven
regional championships during Highlands’ forty-five year absence.  More importantly they were the defending 9th
Region champions, advancing all the way to the “Sweet Sixteen” finals the previous year only to lose in a
controversial overtime State Championship game to Shelby County.  They were looking to return to the Sweet
Sixteen with intentions of taking care of unfinished business.  At the time a 9th Region team had never won a State
Championship making the Bulldogs that much more hungry to return to the Big Dance in 1979.  

On that night, as he did his entire career, Coach Shields asked his team to give their best – nothing more, nothing
less, or nothing else.  From the time the ball went up it appeared that the Highlands Bluebirds would be thwarted in
their upset efforts and the Bulldogs would routinely lay claim to the regional title and represent the 9th Region in
Rupp the following week.  Behind junior guard sensation Dickie Beal, the Dawgs raced out to a hefty lead, mostly on
steals and wide-open layups.  For three quarters Holmes totally outplayed the upstarts from Ft. Thomas.

Beal would lead all scorers with 20 points, but early in the fourth quarter while on top by 12 points, the Holmes
Bulldogs became overly conservative and inexplicably took the air out of the ball.  Appearances were that they had
gone into a near-stall which opened a window of opportunity, allowing the Bluebirds to gain momentum and mount a
rally which resulted in their outscoring them 17-9 in the final period.  This put the Dogs in a position of having to foul
in the waning moments in an attempt to salvage the game with the 9th Region Championship on the line.  

With under a minute to go in the ballgame, Danny Sullivan would take an inside-out pass from post player Bob
Muntis and hit the coffin corner jumper to give the Birds their first lead of the game in what Shields would later call
the “biggest shot of his career.”   Mike Vories, the hero of the Newport Catholic semi-finals game, where he had
scored 29 points with 19 of them coming from the charity stripe, hit an ensuing driving layup and nailed two free
throws in the abating seconds of the game to complete the Birds upset effort.  When the final horn sounded, the
reality of the Bluebirds first regional championship in forty-five years and an ensuing trip to the State Tournament at
Rupp Arena, in Lexington, Kentucky, began to set in.

There is no greater degree of exhilaration than that triggered by sudden victory or by springing a major upset, and
such was the case on the floor of the David Evans Memorial Fieldhouse at Holmes High School that night as bedlam
erupted with the Bluebirds student section rushing the floor to celebrate with their heroes.  The Highlands coaches
clutched each other and danced in a circle in celebration, as Coach Ken Shields broke ranks and sprinted across
the floor to the Highlands fan section where he located his wife Marie.  The two locked in an elongated embrace,
marking perhaps the fondest moments of the coach’s entire thirty-eight year career.   He was smothered by hugs
from well-wishers and congratulated on his team’s accomplishment.

Appropriately the Highlands High School pep band broke into “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” in tribute to their Irish
Head Coach who stopped what he was doing and acknowledged them by blowing them a kiss, just a week from St.
Patrick’s Day - which would fall on the same day as the State Championship Game.

The luck of the Irish had indeed befallen Shields and his Bluebirds.  The program that had experienced four
consecutive losing seasons prior to his hiring in 1975 had just claimed its first regional championship in four and a
half decades in come-from-behind fashion, just four years after Coach Kenney Shields had signed on with the Birds.  
Why the Holmes Bulldogs elected to “take the air out of the ball” is an unanswered question still discussed today.  
Call it providence or coincidence, the bottom line was that his Bluebirds were well prepared, and when the
opportunity presented itself they were in a position to capitalize on it – and did.

The 1979 Highlands Bluebirds were about to represent the 9th Region in the “Sweet Sixteen” Boys State Basketball
Tournament in Rupp Arena the following week.  The town of Fort Thomas was about to experience something never
before witnessed despite all of their collective state football championships – they were about to catch “basketball
fever.”