By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
March saw a lot of cold temperatures, particularly in the 20s and 30s.
While many high school football teams schedule practice later in the spring to avoid them, the Highlands Bluebirds took advantage of them. Their last spring practice took place March 27.
“We have an artificial turf field and we love to (have spring practice) when it’s cold because the games we’re trying to win are those playoff games,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Football Coach. “It turns cold for your most important games.”
Highlands has won plenty of those games lately with a Kentucky record six consecutive state championships. The Bluebirds took down Lexington Catholic on a cold night the day after Thanksgiving in the state semifinals before beating Collins for the Class 4A crown last season. The state championship game was not bad unlike previous years.
Aside from that, Highlands worked on developing its depth. Nearly 100 players are expected to grace the sidelines this fall. This marks the third year that junior varsity and varsity players have played on just offense or defense. The staff lets players go both ways as freshmen before deciding which direction they go as sophomores.
“The guys have seen the other guys before them and they’re fired up about it,” Mueller said. “You take someone from another school, who has played offensive half the time and defense half the time, they only got half the practices. It goes up exponentially when all the guys on the team have benefitted from that.”
The majority of those players participated in spring practice. The ones that didn’t are playing other sports like baseball and track and field.
The depth gives Highlands more time to prepare for specific opponents. The Bluebirds will need that this fall. They face nine teams that had winning records last year.
“It’s a great help. When we go against a team that runs the Wing-T, our defense is practicing against the Wing-T all practice long,” Mueller said. “When we go against a unique defense like a 6-2 man, we’re going against that defense all practice long as opposed to practicing against the defense half the time then telling those same guys to quit thinking about that and go think about this. It gives the guys more time to develop their particular skills.”
Even though spring practice is done, many of those players continue to lift and work out for the season. The first mandatory practice is allowed to be July 15.
Highlands returns a lot from last year’s 14-1 team. That includes rising senior running backs Zach Harris and Jaylen Hayes. Harris run for 1,001 yards and 20 touchdowns with Hayes going for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“It’s a blessing to have so many guys here that are self-motivated,” Harris said. “We could run practice ourselves. The coaches are there to make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We come to work every day and work hard for what we get.”
The Highlands defense benefits from facing players like Harris and Hayes among other good linemen and skill players. The defenders play at a high intensity level in practice all week and it carries over into games. They often face better players in practice than the players they face in games.
“That’s good practice for the regular season and playoffs,” said Jackson Bardo, Highlands rising junior defensive back. “Zach has gotten faster over the years so he’s hard to take down so is Jalen.”
The coaches notice that dedication. Unlike other coaching staffs, this staff does not have to spend a lot of time motivating the players to do what it takes to be successful.
“We have such a determined group of guys,” Mueller said. “They just want to do well. It might be one of the worst places in the world to exercise, but they don’t care. They wait for us to tell them what we’re going to do then they go do it as hard as they can. They could go out in the woods, pick up some rocks and run around with them to work out.”
It helps that the Highlands football staff has had continuity for a while. This fall marks Mueller’s 20th season on the sidelines.
“When you’re young, like a second-grader, you go through Junior Football League and have Coach Mueller talking to you,” Bardo said. “It’s exciting when you finally get to play for him.”
Many people think freshmen have a difficult time adjusting to high school football. But Mueller said the staff pays close attention to the sophomores for a big reason. That’s why a lot of them play on the junior varsity as opposed to varsity right away.
“Your whole life, you’ve played against guys your same age or a year older. That’s the way leagues are formed,” Mueller said. “When you’re a sophomore, you play against seniors. A lot of teams lose a lot of sophomores because they’re afraid to play against seniors. We really try to gear the guys that are ready to go against seniors and the guys that are not ready to go against appropriate competition.”
Highlands had contributions from many sophomores last year like wide receiver Justin Weyer, running back Josh Watson, defensive back Andrew Abner, linebacker Brady Murray and defensive back Griffin Urlage. Urlage had the team’s lone defensive touchdown last year returning an interception back about 60 yards on the final play of the regular season against Ryle.
Highlands faces six new opponents this fall. The Bluebirds open the season against defending Florida Class 2A champion University Christian of Jacksonville on either Aug. 23 or 24. Class 2A is the second-smallest of eight classes in the Sunshine State.
“It gives us something to look forward to trying to win a national championship. I’m honestly glad we got them,” Harris said. “We set up to have the hardest schedule we possibly could to be the best Highlands football team ever.”
Highlands also has its annual scrimmage against defending 6A champion Louisville Trinity a week before that. The game takes place in Shamrock territory this year on Aug. 16 at 7:30 p.m.