Buckeye Pipelines: Greg Frey, Justin Hilliard and Bill Lukens Headline Ohio State’s History of Players from St. Xavier

By 11W Staff on March 12, 2022 at 10:10 am
Greg Frey at St. Xavier
Greg Frey

Buckeye Pipelines puts the spotlight each week on a high school program who has had numerous and notable alumni go on to play for the scarlet and gray.

This week, we take a look at a school that has produced 17 Ohio State football players since 1970: St. Xavier.

Since the turn of the century, five Bombers have played for the Buckeyes, including current NFL player Justin Hilliard. Additionally, Paris Johnson Jr. played three seasons for St. Xavier, though he transferred to Princeton for his senior season.

St. Xavier
2021 RECORD 10–3



One of the most decorated Buckeyes from St. Xavier is Greg Frey, who excelled at baseball and football during his time walking the halls of the all boys school. The captain and three-year starting quarterback at Ohio State took some time to talk with Eleven Warriors about his experiences and the coaching he received at his alma mater.

"John Sabatalo was my offensive coordinator. He was way ahead of his time in what we were doing,” Frey said. “I can’t tell you how much he helped me teaching me the in-depth nature of not just running the offense but also understanding the defenses. I feel like my learning curve accelerated greatly so when I got to Ohio State I was ahead of anybody else that I was competing against.”

The Bombers also had another young and bright coach on the staff during Frey's time with the team. 

“I tell people all the time, 'What was Urban Meyer’s first coaching job?' Not many people remember that he was a volunteer assistant coach at St. Xavier,” Frey said. “That year he was coaching defensive backs, and he was also spending a lot of time with our offensive coordinator John Sabatalo. That was really Urban’s first taste of a pretty cool offense that he was able to figure out more down the road.”

Frey is just one of several former Bombers who went on to have notable careers at Ohio State.

Notable Buckeyes from St. Xavier

OG Bill Lukens (1973-76)

Lukens played in 40 games during his time in Columbus and was a captain of the 1976 team. He was also honored by being named to the All-Big Ten team, Academic All-American team and Academic All-Big Ten Team in 1976. The Buckeyes won three Big Ten titles and the Orange Bowl with Lukens playing on the line.

The offensive guard was a team captain for St. Xavier during his senior season and was also the team MVP. Lukens was named the outstanding offensive lineman of the Greater Catholic League and earned All-GCL honors as well as All-City honors for Cincinnati. He was also a wrestling captain for the Bombers and placed seventh in the state tournament. St. Xavier inducted Lukens in the school's Athletics Hall of Fame in 1988.

QB Greg Frey (1986-90)

Frey was captain of the 1990 Ohio State football team and was also a recipient of the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame scholarship that year. He was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree in 1989 and 1990. 

Frey is probably best known for his two come-from-behind victories against LSU and Minnesota. In 1988, the Buckeyes were down 33-20 with four minutes to play yet escaped with a 36-33 win over the No. 9 Tigers. In 1989, Ohio State was down 31-0 in Minneapolis when Frey orchestrated a stunning comeback by throwing for 362 yards and leading the Buckeyes to a 41-37 victory.

At St. Xavier, Frey was the Ohio Back of the Year and Cincinnati Player of the Year as a senior. He was also named to several prep All-American teams. Frey threw for 2,970 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior and ended his high school career with 47 TDs and 4,702 yards.

During his senior year, he completed 28 of 55 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns in a rivalry game against Archbishop Moeller, which he said was the most memorable game of his high school career.

“We hadn’t beaten them in a long time. We spotted them 21 points and ended (up) losing 56-42 in an epic game,” Frey said. “That game got me to be in the Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” which is still an ongoing thing which is pretty cool. And I think it really solidified me as a Division I prospect.”

Frey was also the two-time Cincinnati Player of the Year in baseball.

"I did get drafted by the Tigers in the spring of 1991. My first college offer was baseball from the University of Michigan,” Frey said. “I was very attracted to that, but Bo Schembechler did not want to recruit me as a scholarship player in football. So, that kind of went down the tubes.”

St. Xavier inducted Frey into its Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997; At the time, he was the youngest Bomber to ever be honored.

Today, Frey's primary job is working in insurance and retirement planning for Fortegic. However, football is still in his blood. He has been an analyst for Spectrum Sports for the past 17 years and is the offensive coordinator at Bexley. Through QB Ohio, Frey gives private lessons establishing fundamentals, ocular dominance and extensive film study for quarterbacks.

LB Justin Hilliard (2015-20)

The start of Hilliard's Ohio State career was filled with injuries. Tears to his biceps derailed his first two seasons in Columbus. He also suffered an Achilles injury in the spring of 2019, but he bounced back and played in 12 games that year.

Due to the injuries, Hilliard was a Buckeye for six seasons. The linebacker played in 50 career games and collected 84 total tackles with nine tackles for loss. He was also a leader and a scholar. Hilliard was a captain in 2020 and an Academic All-Big Ten honoreed.

After his lengthy Ohio State career, Hilliard was picked up by the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent following the 2021 NFL draft. He’s currently a member of the New York Giants.

As a senior in high school, Hilliard was the Division I Defensive Player of the Year, made the All-Ohio team and was a finalist for the Butkus Award. While he could have played just about anywhere as the No. 35 overall recruit in the country, he chose to stay in the state of Ohio and play for the Buckeyes.

"When you have a talent like Justin, leaving the state of Ohio really isn't in the thought process,” St. Xavier High School coach Steve Specht said.

St. Xavier Buckeyes (1970-2021)
OT JOHN CUMMINGS 1970-72 Was on the roster for three seasons, but did not appear in a game.  
OG WILLIAM LUKENS 1973-76 2x All-Big Ten, named captain and OSU's Outstanding Offensive Lineman as a senior. Captain, team MVP, All-GCL, All-State and the GCL Outstanding Offensive Lineman as a senior, St. Xavier Hall of Fame.
QB GREG FREY 1986-89 Started three seasons, captain and team MVP as a senior, 3x Academic All-Big Ten; 2-year starter and letter winner in baseball, won Big Ten title in 1991. Ohio Back of the Year, All-GCL, National Football Hall of Fame Scholar Athlete; 2x All-GCL and 2x GCL Player of the year in baseball;  St. Xavier Hall of Fame.
QB ROB SCHOENHOFT 2005-07 Played in 9 games and completed 18 of 26 passes for 134 yards. Threw for 1,159 yards, 13 TDs and only 3 INT as a senior. Also played 4 years of basketball and made it the finals as a senior.
LS PATRICK HOWE 2007-09 On the roster for three seasons.  
OL ERIC KRAMER 2010-13 A special teams player in 2012 2-year starter in at St. Xavier.
LB JUSTIN HILLIARD 2015-20 A knee injury has limited him to 20 games 38 tackles between 2016 and 2018, Academic All-Big Ten player. Rated as the No. 1 linebacker and a 5-star recruit, an All-Ohioan and DI Defensive Player of the Year.
TE BROCK DAVIN 2017-19 2017 and 2018 Academic All-Big Ten. Caught 17 passes and 2 touchdowns as a senior.

The skinny on St. Xavier

Ohio's second-largest private high school, St. Xavier is a college preparatory school that was originally located in downtown Cincinnati. In the fall of 1960, St. X moved to Finneytown – just on the outskirts of Cincinnati's city limits – where the school remains to this day. The all-boys’ school competes in the Greater Catholic League and Ohio Division I, Region 4. The Bombers went 8–2 in the regular season last year and qualified for the playoffs, in which they won two games before falling to Lakota West in the regional semifinals. 

The last time the St. Xavier football team did not qualify for the playoffs? 2008. During the current streak of 13 playoff appearances, the Bombers have collected two state titles. St. X defeated St. Ignatius in double overtime for the 2016 state title and Pickerington Central in 2020. In all, St. Xavier has four state titles in football. 

Specht shared his thoughts on how the Bombers have maintained a high level of football consistency over the years.

"I think the game of football is embedded in the fabric of Southwest Ohio,” Specht told  Eleven Warriors. “Growing up in the city of Cincinnati, on the west side, I know firsthand how important the game is in the city. The youth programs do a great job of cultivating young people and when they get to St. Xavier (or any of the other schools in the area) they have a solid foundation and understand the importance of the game as it pertains to community building.”

The youth programs and Cincinnati's love of football aren't the only key factors.

“I've always said, good players make good coaches, and we have had our fair share of them at St. Xavier,” Specht said. “We simply try to maintain the tremendous culture established by Tom Ballaban (coached at St. Xavier for 25 years from ’53-’77) and carried on by my mentor, Steve Rasso (coached at St. Xavier for 26 years from ’78-’03). Good culture with great coaches and kids and good players is a pretty good recipe for success. We've been blessed.”

St. Xavier has only had three football coaches over the past 70 years, something that is not lost on Specht.

“I'm not sure you can find that at very many places anymore,” Specht said. “I think the Jesuit education is a big piece of the puzzle. The Jesuit philosophy of ‘striving for the magis’ or simply, striving for more on a daily basis, to be your individual best at all times is threaded through the St. Xavier education and the fabric of the football program. The challenge to be your best, regardless of ability, tends to raise the level of everyone on the team.”

Across all sports, St. Xavier has won an eye-popping 59 OHSAA state championships. The swim team leads the way with 40 state titles while cross country has won six, golf has won five, football has won four and baseball, basketball, lacrosse and soccer have each won one. The Bombers also have 20 state titles in five non-OHSAA sponsored sports.  

Specht’s influence

Steve Specht took over the St. Xavier program in 2003. Over the past 19 seasons, the Bombers have won 172 games, appeared in the playoffs 17 times and won four state titles. Specht was named the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year in February 2013.

When asked about the relationship between his program and Ohio State, Specht shared how he grew up following the Buckeyes.

"I've been knee deep in Ohio State football dating back to the Woody Hayes era simply because my father studied undergraduate, graduate and doctorate work at The Ohio State University,” Specht said. “He was born in Westerville and relocated to Cincinnati where he practiced dentistry and was a huge Buckeye fan. Every New Year that carried a Rose Bowl berth seemed to result in a huge party at our house!”

The ties to Ohio State became deeper during Specht's playing days with the Bombers. He was close friends and teammates with Frey and was coached in the secondary by Meyer during the 1985 season.

Frey had kind words for his longtime friend and St. Xavier's current head coach.

“He’s an asshole. He sucks,” Frey joked. “Sorry, Steve is a great friend. He has done a phenomenal job. It’s hard to find the superlatives for how great a job he’s done ... I’m so proud of Steve and what he’s done, it’s so impressive. I still go down and watch their practices every year.”

Specht said he has gotten to know each of Ohio State’s last three head coaches well through his job as St. Xavier’s coach.

"I watched the Ohio State program thrive under Jim Tressel, continue Big Ten dominance and a consistent name in the national championship scenario under Urban Meyer, and now under Ryan Day,” Specht said. “I, personally, have had great relationships, although very different with each.”

Specht wrote a book, Fourth and Redemption, that gives insight on how a .500 team rallied to win a state title for St. Xavier in 2016. The book is also about what Specht has learned over 30 years of coaching and the resiliency of kids. Specht said the book is also about “how we can all learn to find our individual best in a very challenging world.”  

Other famous alumni

In addition to the Bombers who have gone on to play football at Ohio State, several other athletes from St. Xavier have achieved success in the collegiate and professional ranks in recent years.

Luke Kuechly, a 2021 inductee of St. Xavier's Hall of Fame, was a two-time consensus All-American at Boston College where he won the Bronko Nagurski Award, Lombardi Award and Lott Trophy. He went on to become a Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro and two-time league tackles leader in the NFL.

Joe Hudepohl, a 1992 graduate, won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 400-meter freestyle swim relay team in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. In the 1995 Pan Pacific Championships, he was part of a world record 400-meter freestyle relay team. A year later, he won a gold medal as a member of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay team in Atlanta.

Jim Bunning, the only person inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and to be elected to the U.S. Senate was a 1949 graduate of St. Xavier. 

Other famous alumni from St. X include:

Why are Buckeyes prior to 1970 not highlighted or included in the rankings? Ohio State's official rosters listed the hometown of players but did not provide their high school on the roster before 1970. 

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