By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It was not until recently that the Highlands Bluebirds football team heard about the Collins Titans.
That’s because the Titans (11-3) broke off from Shelby County in 2010. Collins is the last team standing in the way of history for Highlands. Class 4A’s top-ranked Bluebirds (13-1) will take the field in search of a Kentucky record sixth consecutive state championship Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time at Western Kentucky University’s Houchens/L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.
A win would give Highlands its 22nd state championship overall. The Bluebirds enter the game with an overall record of 841-225-26 since starting their program in 1915. That win total is good for second in the country behind just Valdosta (Ga.) with 876 victories since 1913.
Collins is 33-8 in its brief three-year history with three district championships. The Titans have advanced one round deeper into the playoffs each year having faced Louisville Western in three consecutive Region 2 championships. The Titans lost to the Warriors in 2010 by a 31-26 count before edging Western, 13-12 last year and 36-20 this year. Head Coach Jerry Lucas has led the building process for the Titans.
“(Lucas) is doing a great job,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “Those are guys that were playing football at their previous schools. Those are some experienced football players who are serious about it. You can see that.”
Collins lost to 2011 runner-up Franklin-Simpson, 20-15 in the state semifinals last year. But the Titans came back to beat undefeated and third-ranked Warren East, 58-7 in the semifinals Friday.
“It was a neat experience for myself, our coaching staff and our kids to start a program and build it from the ground up,” Lucas said. “We have a beautiful school, great facilities and terrific kids. Shelbyville is a great town to live and raise a family. Our kids believe in our school and our program and it’s been fun being part of building the tradition at Collin High School.”
Aside from history, depth could factor into this contest. The Bluebirds dress more than 90 players and have no one playing on both offense and defense while the Titans dress about 50 and have several players going both directions. Highlands tends to wear down teams that have players going both ways.
“We are certainly honored to not only be making our first state appearance but excited to be playing a team with the history of excellence such as Highlands,” Lucas said. “We understand what we are up against playing a team like that has great players on both sides of the ball and knowing that they only play their kids on one side. At this point in the season, we just have to go out and play and let it all hang out.”
Highlands also played the tougher schedule having to go through ranked Ashland Blazer, Covington Catholic and Lexington Catholic to get to this point. The only ranked team Collins faced on its way to the state championship was Warren East. The first five Highlands opponents made it to the third round of the playoffs. One made it to the 6A state semifinals in Scott County, where it fell 21-14 to Louisville Trinity in the last minute.
Collins finished 2-2 6A competition in the regular season beating 7-5 Meade County (21-14) and 5-7 Oldham County (28-14) and losing to 11-3 6A semifinalist Louisville Eastern (41-29) and 6-5 Lexington Bryan Station (55-52). Aside from Louisville Western, the other common opponent is Boyle County. The Rebels beat the Titans, 49-26 in Danville eight days after Highlands rallied past Boyle County, 52-31 on Aug. 17 to open the season.
“It’s just great experience for guys playing in big games,” Mueller said. “That’s why we schedule the teams we do. It helps us get focused for this game.”
Junior quarterback Lawson Page completed 14-of-18 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns against Warren East. Like Highlands senior quarterback Donovan McCoy, Page wears number one and is a dual-threat out of Collins’ spread offense that mixes in some Power-I formations. Page has completed 185-of-346 passes for 2,825 yards, 36 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Page has also run the ball 155 times for 730 yards and five touchdowns for an average of 4.7 a carry.
“We’re going to try to keep (Page) inside the pocket and in front of us like we try to do with Donovan in practice,” said Nathan Merkle, Highlands junior defensive lineman. “If he gets outside the pocket, he can just run all over the field then he can throw it downfield to a wide receiver or take it to the house.”
Junior running back Deandre Farris is a threat to catch and run the ball. He leads the Titans with 128 rushes for 937 yards and 17 touchdowns for an average of 7.32 per carry. Farris also has 60 catches for 974 yards and 13 touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Nathan Sames leads Collins with 62 catches for 994 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Collins has outscored the opposition, 562-349 for an average of about 40.1-25 a contest. Highlands has outscored its 14 opponents, 734-272 for an average of about 52.4-19.4. Collins has rushed for 2,681 yards and passed for 2,825.
The Bluebirds play a 3-4 scheme defensively. They’ve allowed 2,584 yards rushing and 1,272 passing. Senior Quentin Murray leads Highlands with five interceptions and brother Brady Murray, a sophomore linebacker, leads the way with two fumble recoveries. Reid Schroeder leads Highlands with eight tackles for a loss. Thomas Wrobleski leads the Bluebirds with 7.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. Seth Hope follows with 6.5 sacks.
The Highlands offense has rushed for 3,696 yards and passed for 3,252 more. The Bluebirds have also scored 104 touchdowns this year. McCoy leads the way with 1,039 yards rushing on 148 carries and 20 touchdowns for an average of about seven a carry. McCoy has also completed 159-of-252 passes for 2,616 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Five Bluebirds have rushed for at least 430 yards. Junior Zach Harris follows McCoy with 130 carries for 905 yards and 18 touchdowns for an average of about seven a carry.
Highlands has 12 wide receivers with at least nine catches. Senior Luke Turner leads the way with 38 receptions for 795 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Luke Brockett has 21 catches for 358 yards and four touchdowns. The Bluebirds catch the ball all over the field making life tough for defenses.
“We can beat (opponents) either way,” said Ryan Greene, Highlands junior wide receiver. “If they’re playing up, we can hit them deep. If they’re playing deep, we’ll hit them short. We have a bunch of guys who think about the team more than themselves. I think that’s why we win a lot of games.”
The Bluebirds have won the state championship in 10-of-12 appearances in the title game since Mueller came on staff in 1994. The only years they finished runner-up were 1995 losing 28-12 to Bowling Green and 2003 falling 44-10 to Boyle County.