High School Football

My first date with Kentucky’s biggest high school football rivalry




That’s a first date I’d sign up for in a second, even if it was happening in the parking lot of a college football stadium.

Parked in the tailgate lot ahead of the annual St. Xavier-Trinity football showdown was a basketball goal, complete with one-on-one participants decked out in St. X yellow. To the side a couple of ladies — one rocking a Trinity T-shirt — egged on the boys on the court.

After a round of missed three-pointers by the fellas, the girl in the Trinity tee stepped to the top of the key and demanded the ball. She took her shot. Swish.

“It’s all about the form,” she said with a grin.

So, too, was Trinity’s victory later in the night, a 28-0 demonstration of why the Shamrocks are likely to repeat as the champions in Class 6A. They were quick to the ball on defense and efficient with it on offense. Unbeaten St. Xavier looked mighty in the five weeks prior; against its archrival, it looked meek.

But hope prevailed before kickoff.

“We’re both undefeated this season,” said Ethan Hands, a St. Xavier senior who was playing basketball. “And we come to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium to duke it out. Who’s the better team? Obviously St. X.”

‘All together’

I was born and raised in eastern Kentucky, but the stature of the St. X-Trinity rivalry loomed large even in the mountains. It was a conversation point for people had never stepped foot in Jefferson County, and never wanted to.

On Friday, I wanted to. For the first time, I got to see what the hype was all about. While the game was a one-sided snoozer, the buildup was every bit as good as advertised. If Trinity-St. X had been a Tinder match, I’d swipe right again.

BJ Ruckriegel, who graduated from Trinity in 1995, brought a grill as big as a truck bed and enough meat to fill one, which was good because he anticipated his tailgate group to grow to about 400 before all was said and done.

Four hundred!

Maybe more shocking? Some of his Bud Light-toting comrades sported St. X shirts under the Trinity flag flying overhead.

“With each other or against each other,” Ruckriegel said. “ … those generations are all together. It’s always the Kevin Bacon theory.”

Throughout the lot there was a friendly vitriol — perhaps a tad less friendly among the more emboldened students currently attending each school — and a sense that, despite a desire for one’s team to bludgeon the other on the field, at the end of the day they’d come together and have a peaceful discourse about what happened.

And that they would be back next year to do it all again.

“We’ll still be friends,” said Kim Graves, a St. Xavier supporter, after her friend, Barbie Hennessey, predicted a Trinity victory. “Everybody’ll still be friends after the game. They will, they will.”

Recency bias

St. Xavier and Trinity have played at least one time each year beginning with the 1956 season. Between their annual regular-season contests and frequent playoff clashes, they’ve played 83 times — that’s 54 more games than UK and U of L’s football teams have played, and 33 more times than those school’s basketball teams have battled. That’s a lot of football.

And it has been competitive, albeit decreasingly. Recency bias colors things heavily in Trinity’s favor, as the Shamrocks have taken 13 of the last 14 meetings, the best such stretch by either team in the rivalry. The teams split the 14 meetings before that, giving Trinity a 20-8 record in games played in the 21st century.

Trinity’s win on Friday boosted its series lead to 44-37.

“It’s always a dog fight,” Trinity Coach Bob Beatty said after the game. “Any time you play your archrival it’s gonna be a dog fight. That’s life. When you play your archrival, you’re gonna come up with a piece of your ear gone, a broken or bloody nose. You get up off the stool and come out for another round.”

There was a time when St. Xavier dominated. The Tigers won 15 of the first 22 contests, two of which ended in the series’ only two ties. A 10-of-13 answer by Trinity was followed up by 4-of-5 stretch from St. X. The Rocks won six straight from 1987 to 1992 before the Tigers took seven of nine to close out the 20th century.

Excluding the two ties, 32 of the games have been decided by single digits and four took overtime to finish. Only 17 games have had margins of more than 21 points, although 12 of those have come since 2004.

‘It is crazy’

Aside from a rise in available home entertainment options (hello, Netflix) and college football sinking its teeth deeper and deeper into Friday nights, Trinity’s extended reign and a wave of lopsided scores are possible factors in a recent attendance decline.

The series reached its high point — 38,872 — in 2008 and hasn’t cracked 30,000 since 2012. In a rain-soaked 2015 affair, an estimated crowd of 13,000 — the lowest regular-season crowd since 1974 — turned out for a tight Trinity win. Only 18,000 watched the regular-season contest in 2016, and only about 6,000 came back for the playoff rematch — also played at Cardinal Stadium — that same year.

Still, those numbers — especially those in the regular season — dwarf all others across the state. About 24,000 paid at least $10, and some upwards of $18 for preferred and club seating, to watch this year’s matchup of undefeated titans. That’s probably more people than have watched at least one high school football game in Lexington halfway through the 2017 season.

“It is crazy,” said Christy McGrath, who isn’t originally from Louisville but now has a son in the Catholic school system. “Once you’re here, then you start to understand it a little bit.”

Perhaps it’ll never again reach its attendance peak, but the rivalry remains Kentucky’s most important inside and outside of the its borders. In an article for The Guardian last year, Igor Guryashkin called it “the biggest high school football game in the United States” — high praise for a state synonymous with Thoroughbreds, basketball and bourbon.

The pomp and partying remain incredible regardless of the game’s score, and not just in the pre-game tailgate; the Catholic Education Foundation hosted 1,100 people for a dinner that raised $375,000 the day before kickoff.

In a pregame ceremony, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, called St. Xavier-Trinity “the Super Bowl of Catholic high school football.” He probably undersold it.

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

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