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High School Basketball Chat: Covington Catholic Head Coach Scott Ruthsatz

It takes time and a great deal of effort to establish the kind of winning tradition that Covington Catholic has built over the last five years. Head coach Scott Ruthsatz has implemented a standard of excellence that in the last two years has produced a state championship, followed by a state semifinal appearance in consecutive seasons.

These successes have not been a cake walk as the 9th Region continues to be one of the most difficult in the state, but the Colonels with Ruthsatz have won using a basic premise of playing aggressive but smart.

“The expectation is something that we talk a lot about. In not only how we play on the basketball court, but how we compete in practice every day, there is an expectation there and if you aren’t fulfilling that expectation, it’s going to be hard to use you,” Ruthsatz said about the team culture. “All the kids buy in. Since those early teams five years ago, it was not an easy road, but this is what they produced and we constantly tell those kids that these are the fruits of the labor that you put in. I think the expectation is there and I think we’re seeing kids come from out of district, out of our feeder system, to come to Covington Catholic. One of the things is to compete for a championship and I think the mark of a good program is to consistently be there. I know that every year isn’t going to be, but boy are we going to try.”

Listen to Head Coach Scott Ruthsatz talk with RCN's Bryan Burke about the 2015-16 season:

If Cov Cath is to find themselves back in Lexington come next March, junior guard Cole VonHandorf will definitely be a big reason why. VonHandorf has turned heads since he cracked the starting lineup as a freshman and has advanced his game to the point where he is now being recruited by major college programs. The left-handed scoring extraordinaire will be looked at to not only fill up the stat sheet, but provide a heavy dose of leadership to his team.

“Cole definitely has to take the team over which is kind of rare as a junior to have to do that, but that’s part of his maturation process. He’s done a lot of great things on the court, but the thing that will move him to a whole other level is his leadership. At some point in time, he needs to pass that torch on to some of our younger kids and show them the way Nick did a couple of years ago,” Ruthsatz said. “For Cole, it’s a big year. We know what he can do on the court, he’s gotten a lot better at his jump shot, he’s improved his range, he’s gathered a lot of attention from a lot of college coaches that we’ve had in over the fall recruiting period, so now it’s a matter of motivating him to take that next step which is a leadership role.”

Last year, the coaching staff looked for VonHandorf to demonstrate some point guard skills in order to transition him to that role, but now it appears that they are satisfied with keeping him as the shooting guard where he naturally fits.

“I think he will play some point, but I think we will keep him on the wing. We have some younger guys that can get in the lane and create opportunities for him. A lot of the coaches that we talked to aren’t necessarily expecting him at the point at the college level, so we will gather that, but there will be times if we go with a bigger lineup that he will be used at the point. We still want him to have point guard mentality as far as taking over games in late situations. He’s got to be the guy that makes a play for himself or someone else, but right now we still see him on the wing and see what happens from there.”

A big part of last year’s success for the Colonels was the marked improvement point guard Cooper Theobald showed from his junior to senior year. This year, there may not be such a dramatic example of player growth on the roster, but Ruthsatz is hopeful that the sophomore junior guards can exceed perhaps their own expectations.

“We haven’t gotten to that point where I’d say there is a clear-cut guy that has really garnered that. Cooper was one of those guys that was driven to be really good and we have a lot of seniors, and they’re battling. We have a great group of juniors and a really good group of sophomores and it’s going to be kind of interesting to see who breaks out of that pack,” he said.

One of the things that made Theobald such an effective player was his fearlessness when attacking the rim. He spent a lot of time crashing to the hardwood on block/charge calls which has become a mentality of the Cov Cath guards. Point guard Nick Ruthsatz played the same during his senior season two years ago.

“I would definitely say that it’s one of the things that we try to teach is that you have to have that mentalities as a guard. For us to be able do those things, get in the lane and make plays for other guys. In situations you have to think about all the options that you have but at the end of the day, guys need to make plays and you can’t be tentative out there. That’s one of the things I look for. If you’re tentative, that probably means you’re not going to play. One of our themes is to make aggressive mistakes. We are all going to make mistakes but some are really passive and those passive mistakes usually lead to the other team scoring points. When you make aggressive mistakes like going in and taking a charge, or throwing the ball away, typically, I don’t mind those mistakes because they’re aggressive and that’s kind of been our mantra.”

The Colonels have many options in terms of size of their players. They have a variety of big men to choose from this season, including 6’11’’ Jake Walter who is still only a sophomore.

“He’s come a long, long way,” Ruthsatz said of Walter. “He lost 25 pounds this summer so we’re very happy about that. He’s on a very strict diet. We brought a dietician in and talked with all the kids because I thought that would help Jake stay on that path. I think he’s driven to be good and there have been times in his past whether it be in the junior-high level or the AAU circuit that certain coaches gave up on him a little too soon. This is a marathon with Jake, it is not a sprint.”

Also in the mix is 6’6’’ Hunter Zeigelmeier who was out almost all of last year with an injury, and 6’6’’ Wil Heppler who is returning from a torn labrum he suffered this summer.   

“Those guys all give us good size and then I think we have some intermediate guys like Austin Sweeney, A.J. Mayer, and Ian Galvin. We can go as big as we want but we could also go very small to where we have someone like Andy Flood who at 6’4’’ could be our biggest guy. We can get up and down the court because a lot of our younger guys are very skilled.”

A problem the Colonels experienced last year were stretches of spotty outside shooting that made it tough on them to attack the hoop when the jumpers were not falling. This year’s guards look to provide some improvement in that area, but it’s a work in progress.

“We have a good group of sophomores that could come in and take some of those minutes. We have Aiden Ruthsatz, my son, who can come in and do some things. He started last year on the JV team and his brother Nick has brought him a long, long way. Aiden can consistently knock down jump shots now. One other thing he does is get into the lane. He’s one of our guy that can get in the lane and create for the other guys. Now he’s at the point where he gets himself too deep and gets into trouble, but that is something that we’re monitoring and we’re correcting as the season goes on.

“Also in that sophomore group, we have C.J. Frederick who played freshman last year but now he’s about 6’3’’ and can really shoot it well. He’s probably our most consistent shooter as a sophomore and he can do a lot more than just shoot. He can put it on the floor, he can start the break, he can break you down off of the dribble, so we like what we have there too.”

The schedule is tough again this year, but at least many of their toughest opponents will be played at home.

“Our home schedule is very good this year. We played a lot of good teams on the road last year. Early on the season, we have Trinity coming in, we have Louisville St. Xavier coming in, we have Louisville Central coming in and we also have Cincinnati Moeller coming in. Over Christmas break, we are going back down to Sarasota, Florida, where we will be defending our championship from a couple of years ago at Riverview High School which is a great environment and great crowds there. They really put on a nice event. The boys are looking forward to it and the coaches too.”

Covington Catholic lost its season opener at Cooper, 67-54. The Colonels host Ludlow on Friday.

-Bryan Burke, associate editor

Photo by RCN's Brian Frey