By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It may take a few looks for people to familiarize themselves with many of the new opponents on this football schedule.
But they will learn about the competition quickly. It’s loaded with nine teams that had winning records last year.
The Highlands Bluebirds will take on six new opponents this year in University Christian (Fla.), Campbell County, Lexington Bryan Station, John Hardin, Paducah Tilghman and Warren Central. Highlands has won six consecutive state championships and 22 overall. The Bluebirds rank second in the country with 842 all-time wins behind just Valdosta (Ga.) with 876 victories.
Highlands had to find new non-district opponents after Ryle and Boyle County dropped the Bluebirds from the schedule. Gone from the schedule are also Mason County, Scott County, Louisville Western and Pendleton County. Pendleton County dropped out of district play for the 2013 and 2014 seasons and will therefore be ineligible for postseason play.
Aside from district rivals Covington Catholic, Holmes and Harrison County, the only other mainstay on the schedule is Cincinnati Elder. The Panthers handed the Bluebirds their lone loss of 2012.
“We really appreciated Boyle and Ryle playing us in the past and hope they play us in the future,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “We have a difficult time finding games. Our first priority is to play local, Northern Kentucky teams. Many of those teams have not wanted to schedule us for their own personal reasons. I talked to various schools I understand. Sometimes we’ve just been on a different, competitive level. Teams don’t want to play a team they’re not at the same competitive level with.”
Only three teams on the schedule come from the northern three counties in Kentucky. Covington Catholic and Holmes have to play Highlands because they’re in the same district.
But Campbell County stepped forward and scheduled the Bluebirds. The head coach of the Camels is 1997 Highlands graduate Stephen Lickert. They finished 7-5 last year, won Class 6A, District 6 for the second straight year and lost in the second round of the playoffs, 29-21 to Simon Kenton.
Highlands did reach out to play a private school in west Nashville, Tenn. in the Ensworth Tigers. Ensworth has won three straight Division II-AA titles. Tennessee separates the scholarship and non-scholarship schools into two divisions.
“Ensworth certainly wasn’t a team that was worried that we were going to beat them, 70-0,” Mueller said. “They’re a team that was sixth in the country, (number) one in Tennessee. They have players from about 50 different zip codes. When (Ohio State head coach) Urban Meyer came here, he said they’re recruiting a guy that goes 51 miles to Ensworth. I don’t think they really wanted to travel this kind of distance. We didn’t want to go all the way to Nashville to play a game. So it just didn’t work out.”
The most intriguing matchup after the annual scrimmage with three-time defending 6A champion Trinity (13-1 last year) is the season-opener against the University Christian Fighting Christians (13-1) from Jacksonville, Fla. University Christian won the Florida Class 2A title last year. Class 2A is the second-smallest of eight classes in the Sunshine State. The game may be played either Aug. 23 or 24 depending if the game is televised. This will also mark the first time in school history that Highlands has played an opponent outside Kentucky, Ohio or Indiana.
Following another home game against Bryan Station (6-5), Highlands hits the road for three consecutive Saturdays. It begins with a rematch of the 2009 Class 5A state championship against the John Hardin Bulldogs (13-1). John Hardin of Elizabethtown south of Louisville did not lose until the state semifinals to undefeated 15-0 and eventual 5A champion Bowling Green, 14-13.
“We prefer to play on Friday nights,” Mueller said. “But we just couldn’t find local teams to play us on Friday nights. We really liked to play John Hardin and Paducah Tilghman and you just have to play those games on Saturdays. We feel like this is as good of a schedule as we ever had.”
A week later, Highlands again passes through Elizabethtown on its way to Paducah to face the Tilghman Blue Tornado (8-4). Tilghman won the 3A state championship in 2009. Mapquest lists the driving distance between the two schools at about 321 miles and about five hours driving the speed limit.
“We don’t mind getting on the bus and going to play teams,” Mueller said. “Time on the bus is a fun time. We get some stuff done. We talk football during that time, go over game plans and see various tapes of ourselves. It’s sort of like a practice time. It’s a bonding time.”
Class 4A, District 6 action starts a week later against the rival Covington Catholic Colonels (9-4). The Bluebirds then take on Harrison County (1-10) six days later before their bye week before Holmes (6-5) comes to Fort Thomas on Oct. 18 to conclude district action.
Highlands finishes the season traveling to Elder (8-4) then playing host to the Warren Central Dragons (11-2) from Bowling Green. Like John Hardin, the Dragons’ two losses came to Bowling Green.
Mueller said it’s tough to schedule Ohio opponents because the weekly schedules could cause conflicts. For instance, a week 1 in Ohio could be a week 2 in Kentucky.
The Bluebirds are continuing their offseason workouts before spring practice starts. The spring game will take place later in the year.
Date: Opponent: Time:
Friday, Aug. 16 at Louisville Trinity 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 23 or 24 University Christian (Fla.) 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 30 Campbell County 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 6 Bryan Station 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 14 at John Hardin 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 21 at Paducah Tilghman 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 28 at Covington Catholic* 1 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 4 Harrison County* 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 18 Covington Holmes* 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 25 at Cincinnati Elder 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 1 Warren Central 7:30 p.m.
Note: All times Eastern.
*- Class 4A, District 7 contest