By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
BOWLING GREEN – This year’s Highlands Bluebirds football team saw Co-Head Coaches Dale Mueller and Brian Weinrich lose someone close to them.
The Bluebirds (14-1) dedicated the season to those relatives. Mueller’s mother-in-law passed away in Ithaca, N.Y. earlier in the week and Mueller did not coach in Highlands’ 47-0 Class 4A state championship win over the Collins Titans (11-4) on Friday.
“Even though he’s not here calling the plays, this is just a well-oiled machine of a coaching staff,” said Donovan McCoy, Highlands senior quarterback. “We could have our three top offensive coaches go down and we’d still have someone there that could just go in and call the plays like he would and we’d execute the game plan. That’s how Highlands works. (Mueller) wasn’t here physically. But he was here spiritually and emotionally.”
Mueller handles a lot of responsibilities handling with the offense. The Bluebirds improved to 237-34 since Mueller came on staff in 1994.
“We met with (Mueller) Wednesday night before he left,” Weinrich said. “We do what we do and he trusts us. We’re a whole team top to bottom. They’re a great group of guys. We all rally around each other and we’re there for each other through everything.”
Highlands wore the initials, JEH for Weinrich’s grandmother Janet Hewling all season. The longtime Fort Thomas Independent School District employee passed away prior to the regular-season meeting against Covington Catholic.
The Bluebirds finished the season with 781 points, 111 touchdowns and 7,424 yards of total offense. Those averaged about 52 points, 7.4 touchdowns and 495 yards per contest.
Highlands also improved to 87-3 since the run of six consecutive state championships started in 2007. That includes a sparkling record of 82-1 against teams from Kentucky.
Final game for 25 Seniors:
The Bluebirds said goodbye to 25 seniors after the win Friday.
Highlands finished an impressive 58-2 in this class’ four years of high school. That was also the mark of last year’s class led by Patrick Towles, Austin Sheehan and Drake and Devin Bruns.
As far as the skill positions go, McCoy, running backs Colin Seidl, Ryan Donovan and wide receivers Jac Collinsworth, Luke Turner, David Christian, J.C. Mettens and tight end Jack Grimm graduate. The offensive lineman that will graduate are Richie Whitford, Jason Thome and center Mitch Dee.
On the defensive side, linemen Gabe Schultz, Austin Peterson, Taylor Fossett, and Trevor Kraft will graduate. The linebackers to graduate are Reid Schroder, Joe Paolucci, Jehad Henderson and Connor Poston. The defensive backs that played their last games Friday are Quentin Murray, Jake Lester, Blake Myers, Ben Streeter, Blake Schutte and Jake Heck.
Far from Bare:
The graduation of 25 seniors tends to set programs back. But not Highlands.
“We have a great group of underclassmen that are keeping (the tradition) going,” Schroder said. “They’re talking to all the freshmen and eighth graders keeping them in it and keeping the spirit alive for Highlands football.”
Drew Houliston is the leading candidate to take over at quarterback. But Beau Hoge could push for that spot as well.
They could throw to a number of receivers such as Ryan Greene, Luke Brockett, Brandon Hergott, Justin Weyer or even tight ends like Nick True or Jack Telek. Running backs Zach Harris and Jaylen Hayes will return for their senior seasons next year.
The offensive line returns a number of solid players. They will be led by Tyler Schweitzer, Bryan Saunders, Kendall Kramer and Scott Turner. The offseason programs generally begin in January.
“They are long and intense, but have a lot of fun with them,” Saunders said of Highlands’ offseason workouts. “The contributors on this team survive them. You can’t get where we are without putting in that hard work.”
Seth Hope returns to anchor the defensive line along with Nathan Merkle and Matt Gall. The linebacking crew will be led by Brady Murray, Joey Cochran and Connor Bleser. The defensive backs will be led by Jackson Bardo, Griffin Urlage and Andrew Abner.
The Bluebirds entered the season ranked second in the country for the most wins in school history. The picked up seven victories on the top team in the Valdosta Wildcats of south Georgia.
Valdosta has 23 state championships and 876 wins dating back to 1913. Highlands owns 842 victories since 1915. But Valdosta has not won a state title since 1998 playing in a tough region in the largest of six classes in Georgia.
The Bluebirds now rank 11th all-time in the country with the most football state championships in school history. Valdosta ranks 10th. The national leader is Sioux Falls Washington (S.D.) with 38.
Sioux Falls Washington and Honolulu (HI.) St. Louis have both won 14 straight state titles. A title next season would put Highlands among the nation’s elite with seven in a row and would tie five other schools. Massillon Washington (Oh.) had two separate runs of seven straight state titles in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.