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Highlands’ Sweet 16 title is ‘mountaintop’ for Listermans

April 6, 2021 FieldsColumn

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Highlands Coach Kevin Listerman guided the Bluebirds to their first Sweet 16 title in school history. (Photo by LES NICHOLSON/KHSAA)

BY MIKE FIELDS (April 6, 2021)

It was an especially festive Easter for the Listerman clan when it got together on Sunday at the family home in California, Ky., a tiny dot on the map in rural Campbell County.

“There were a lot of smiles and giggles,” Kevin Listerman said. “And feeling blessed and amazed.”

Mike Listerman, Kevin’s dad, called it “a good celebration. And, of course, there was a lot of basketball talk.”

Of course there was a lot of basketball talk.

The night before, Kevin Listerman coached Highlands to the first Sweet 16 title in school history. The Bluebirds, led by tournament MVP Sam Vinson, rolled over Elizabethtown 79-60 in the finals in Rupp Arena.

When Kevin and his wife Ann arrived at his parents’ home on Sunday, they brought with them the KHSAA championship trophy.

Mike, a longtime coach, immediately thought of a photo op: He took the glistening hardware outside and set it beside the basketball goal that his kids grew up playing on. He propped up a large cardboard Sweet 16 bracket alongside the trophy, which had a game net draped across it.

The Sweet 16 trophy and the basketball goal at the Listerman’s home.

Mike texted the photo to family and friends, along with a note, part of which read:

“From the humble beginnings in California, Ky., to Rupp Arena and the top of the mountain in Kentucky high school basketball!”

For the Listermans, especially Mike and his sons Andy and Kevin, winning a state title was the culmination of decades of devotion to high school hoops.

“Today it really started setting in, that it’s been a long, long, long road,” Mike said Monday night. “I started teaching and coaching in 1974. How many days and nights and miles and bounces of the ball is that? Holy mackerel! It took 47 years to get there.

“I didn’t do it; Kevin did. But if you can’t win it, the next best thing is to have your son win it.”

Kevin knows how much it means to his father.

“For him, a lifetime of dedication to Kentucky high school basketball . . . even though he didn’t get (a state title), to see me get one is just as good and just as special for him.”

Andy seconded that: “For dad, somebody finally got to the mountaintop. It’s pretty awesome. To realize you’re on top of the world of Kentucky high school basketball. Dreams do come true.”

Last week’s KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 presented by UK Healthcare Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine wasn’t the first state tournament experience for the Listermans.

Mike first made it to Rupp Arena as a Highlands assistant in 1979, and returned in 1982.

He got back to the big stage as a Covington Catholic assistant in 1992. Andy was a sophomore starter on that team and Kevin was a freshman reserve. They lost to Lexington Catholic in the opening round.

In 1992, Mike Listerman was a Covington Catholic assistant, and his sons Andy and Kevin were on the team that made it to the Sweet 16.

Ten years later, Andy was in his first year as an assistant at Lexington Catholic under Danny Haney when the Knights won the state title.

In 2004, CovCath, with Mike Listerman as head coach, won the 9th Region. While he was thrilled to be going to Rupp, it was a bittersweet victory because the team the Colonels beat in the region finals — Boone County — was coached by his son Kevin.

“I was so excited for my first trip (as head coach) to the Sweet 16, but I looked down at the other end of the court and it’s my son,” Mike said. “That wasn’t a very good feeling.”

CovCath made it to the state semifinals that year before losing a close game to eventual champ Warren Central.

Mike guided the Colonels back to Lexington two years later, and his last appearance on the Rupp sidelines was as a Holmes assistant in 2013.

Kevin, in his eighth season as Highlands coach, got the Bluebirds back in the Sweet 16 this year for the first time since 2001. They were considered a threat to win the title, but nobody expected them to blow through the bracket in the fashion they did. They beat Muhlenberg County 88-60, McCracken County 63-53, Ashland Blazer 66-50, and E-town 79-60.

After Highlands won its quarterfinal game, Kevin received a text from his dad.

“He said, ‘Look, I’ve won two games in the state tournament. I want you to break my record.’ I said. ‘Will do.'”

Andy had an up-close view of his brother coaching in the quarterfinals and semifinals. He was the color commentator for 859 Sports Radio’s coverage of the Bluebirds’ wins over McCracken County and Ashland Blazer.

Andy had to miss the championship game, however.

Last fall he agreed to serve as a sponsor to a friend, Ray Arnold, as he studied to become a Catholic. Little did they know that months later, the final step in the process, the final ceremony, would conflict with Highlands playing for the Sweet 16 championship.

“It wasn’t until about two weeks ago that I realized that if Kevin made it to the finals, I wouldn’t be able to make it,” Andy said.

So Saturday night, before heading into church for the 8:45 p.m. service, Andy sat in the parking lot listening to most of the first half of the state finals on the radio.

“Highlands was up 11 at that point,” he said.

Kevin Listerman reached up to hug his dad after the title game.

When he entered the church, Andy told his friend if he seemed “a little frazzled” it was because his brother was coaching in the state finals.

“He and his wife looked at me and said, ‘You’re not at the game?! You’re ridiculous.’

“But I had to be there for Ray. When you tell somebody you’ll be there for them, you’ve got to be a person of your word.”

Andy did manage to keep up with what was going on in Lexington, though. He kept his phone on in church, and his wife texted him photos of the Rupp Arena scoreboard.

“I did say a few prayers for (Highlands) to maintain the lead,” Andy said with a laugh.

“A little after 9, we saw the final score.”

Back in Lexington, Kevin celebrated with his team, then rushed into the stands to hug his wife. “She’s just been my rock for so long, and to be able to share that moment with her was so special,” he said.

After the post-game press conference, Kevin and his players returned to the court to cut down the nets. Kevin spotted his parents, Mike and Jeanie, in the first row of the stands. He reached up and embraced them as best as he could.

“I hugged my dad around his head, and told him, ‘This is amazing.

“There are so many factors out of your control just to get to (the finals), and then to win it.

“It’s such a special thing to be the state champion. The neatest part of it is that this group has talked about it since they were second-, third- and fourth-graders. To get here and actually win it is incredible.”

Mike Listerman appreciates what a Sweet 16 title means because his perspective encompasses more than 40 years.

“I’ve always said that once you get there as a coach or as a player, you understand why they call it the Sweet 16, because every game you win there it keeps getting sweeter. I mean that sincerely.

“As this past weekend progressed, I thought, ‘We can do this.’ I knew we had a pretty good shot. We had a pretty good draw. But things have to go your way.

“But the Bluebirds didn’t need any of that. They pretty much took care of things straight up.”

Straight up to the mountaintop, where the view for the Listerman family is spectacularly sweet.

Mike Listerman, left, with sons Andy and Kevin.

 

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