By G. Michael Graham
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Writer
What is a dream to many is a yearly expectation for the Highlands Bluebirds football team.
That’s what happens when you have won 828 games since 1915, good for second in the country behind just Valdosta (Ga.) High’s 869. The 21 state championships and a stellar 73-2 mark in five years, puts Highlands in the upper echelon not just in Kentucky, but in the nation.
But like veteran head coach Dale Mueller and the players said, each team has to prove itself on a yearly basis and this team has the opportunity to do what’s never been done in Kentucky history. That’s win six consecutive state championships. Highlands’ fifth straight title last year matched Boyle County’s run of five in a row between 1999 and 2003.
What’s scarier for opponents this year is the Bluebirds field a deep team with an eye-popping 96 players on the varsity this year. None of them play both offense and defense.
“The guys are just so incredibly dedicated,” Mueller said. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of seniors this past year. So the guys that were juniors, sophomores and freshmen saw them and saw what they did and how much they liked it. Now, they want to do the same things.”
Mueller, a 1973 Highlands graduate, is entering his 19th season at his alma mater. The Bluebirds are 223-33 with 10 state championships during that run that began in 1994.
Highlands has second and third-string players that could start for many teams around the country. Highlands had 71 players on varsity in 2010 and 83 last year. A big challenge for the coaching staff is finding playing time for those talented players. Some of them will get their chance this fall with the graduation of 23 starters including Patrick Towles, Kentucky’s 2011 Mr. Football, who is now at the University of Kentucky.
“We don’t look at (the state championships) as a streak,” said Mitchell Dee, Highlands senior center. “It feels different every year because it’s so hard. (Coach Mueller) reminds us every day of how teams like CovCath (Covington Catholic) are getting closer to us. That motivates us to work harder.”
The Bluebirds face a tough schedule again this year. They open up against Boyle County and Scott County at David Cecil Memorial Field, where they’ve won 39 straight dating back to a 29-27 loss to Covington Catholic on Oct. 27, 2006, before traveling to Louisville Western.
Boyle County and Western lost to Lexington Catholic, 10-7 and Collins, 13-12 respectively in the 4A quarterfinals, and Scott County was undefeated before losing big 62-21 to Louisville Trinity in the Class 6A title game.
Scott County is the only new opponent on the schedule taking Dixie Heights’ spot. The Cardinals return running back Dieries Dumphord. He rushed for 1,148 yards and 19 touchdowns last year.
Following a home game against Mason County, Highlands’ biggest test in the district comes on Sept. 21 when the Covington Catholic Colonels come to Fort Thomas. The Colonels were the last team to beat the Bluebirds in the playoffs in 2006. CovCath quarterback Blake Bir threw for 4,714 yards and 50 touchdowns last year.
After concluding district play, Highlands finishes at home against Elder and at Ryle. Elder always poses a threat. The Panthers took the Bluebirds to the wire falling just 34-29 despite finishing 2-8 mostly because 13 players were suspended for a violation of team rules.
Ryle has high expections entering the season thanks to the return of dual-threat quarterback Nathan Davis. Ryle handed Highlands its only loss, 28-26 to a Kentucky squad in the last five years on Oct. 28, 2010 in Union.
“If we play tough teams in the regular season, it better prepares us for the playoffs,” Mueller said. “Last year, we played Elder at ‘The Pit’ and that is really a more intense atmosphere than the state championship. We want to play teams that we feel could beat us. Our varsity schedule is more locked in because there are five teams in our district so we have to play four district games. But on junior varsity, no one has to play us. Our JV schedule is actually Trinity, Elder, Moeller, La Salle, Withrow, Covington Catholic, Ryle and Lexington Catholic.”
Highlands faces Trinity on Friday at home at 7 p.m. in a scrimmage. The Shamrocks also own 21 state championships and finished ranked first in the nation according to several polls and ratings such as RivalsHigh100. Trinity is led by quarterback Travis Wright and wide receiver James Quick.
“Obviously, everyone knows how good they are,” said Quentin Murray, Highlands senior defensive back. “It’s going to show us where we are. It will be a test for the secondary. But I’m sure we can hold up to it.”
Friday, August 17 vs. Boyle County 7:30 p.m.
Friday, August 24 vs. Scott County 7:30 p.m.
Friday, September 7 at Louisville Western 7:30 p.m.
Friday, September 14 vs. Mason County 7:30 p.m.
Friday, September 21 Covington Catholic* 7 p.m.
Friday, September 28 at Harrison County* 7:30 p.m.
Friday, October 5 Pendleton County* 7 p.m.
Friday, October 12 at Covington Holmes* 7 p.m.
Friday, October 19 vs. Cincinnati Elder 7:30 p.m.
Friday, October 26 at Ryle 7:30 p.m.
· - Class 4A, District 7 contest