G. Michael Graham
Shortly after Clay Clevenger took over as the new head football coach of the Danville Admirals, he put a picture on Twitter of the title years on the school’s stadium and raised the question, “What are you doing that will help hang another banner?”
The Admirals rank fifth in Kentucky for the most football state championships with 10 only behind Highlands (22), Louisville Trinity (22), Louisville St. Xavier (12) and Beechwood (11). But they’ve not won once since 2003.
I remember those dominant Danville teams led by Kelvin Turner and Andrew Hopewell. I was Sports Editor of the Commonwealth Journal in Somerset during that time when the Admirals won three titles in four years.
In fact, Danville has not played for a state championship since 2006 when Newport Central Catholic edged the Admirals, 37-34 for the title when there were still four classes. Since going to six classes, the furthest Danville has advanced in the playoffs came in 2010 when it made it to the state semifinals before losing to eventual state runner-up Owensboro Catholic. They’ve not been able to beat arch-rival Somerset in the playoffs the past two years.
Why am I talking about Danville? It’s simple. The Highlands and Newport Central Catholic football teams have to be on the lookout against what some Danville fans on http://www.bluegrasspreps.com say has occurred there and could be a reason why longtime head coach Sam Harp left to take the position at struggling Lebanon (Tenn.) High outside Nashville other than to be closer to his daughter and her family.
That’s the thought process where you feel like you’ve earned the right to win state championships based on your past and do not put in the work that it takes to earn them. It is a reason why Highlands Co-Head Coach Dale Mueller does not like to talk much about the school’s great history of an overall record of 842-225-26 good for the second-most wins in school history in the country behind Valdosta, Georgia’s 876 victories and Kentucky state-record six straight state championships. (I tried to sneak in a question about it during the playoffs last year and he did a great job deflecting it. Thus, I won’t even try again.)
When I covered a school in Tennessee years ago that won in a nearby opposing stadium for the first time in school history, the head coach said, “History can hurt you if you dwell too much on the negatives.” The opposite holds true for Highlands and NewCath.
Highlands finds itself at that perch in Class 4A and Newport Central Catholic at the same throne in Class 2A after winning the respective titles last fall. But based on what I’ve seen in the offseason, both teams are putting in that same work that has made previous teams successful. The current players want to add to the legacies of their predecessors.
“We have such a determined group of guys,” Mueller said. “They just want to do well.”
Mueller and staff emphasize improvement each and every day. He said that after Highlands handled Scott County, 60-37 this past year. There is a reason that’s important.
I remember covering the game at Louisville Western in Week 3. The Bluebirds won 51-23. But you just felt like something was not right.
Surely enough, the Bluebirds quickly took care of that sub-par performance respondeding with a 61-3 thrashing of Mason County the following week. The Royals may not be to the level of the Bluebirds. But they’re still a good team having made the third round of the 3A playoffs before losing to undefeated Bourbon County last year.
The coaches and players at Highlands know the moment you stop working your tail off to improve is the moment someone will knock you off. The only thing the coaching staff needs to remind the current players of in those terms is that rival Covington Catholic is constantly improving like recently graduated center Mitch Dee mentioned last year.
Covington Catholic may be the main threat to the Bluebird dominance. But you never know when a Lexington Catholic, Boyle County, Johnson Central, Ashland Blazer or even a Warren East or Collins could rise up and knock them off. Thus, the Bluebirds continue to stay on their guard and do the extra push-ups and repetitions.
One big way Highlands has improved in recent years is putting players on just offense or defense. That has especially helped with the depth growing each year that is expected to rise above 100 players this fall. Highlands gets twice as much practice time at its position as opposed to half the time on offense and half on defense.
I remember walking into the Highlands locker room this past spring. There was no room to walk on while Co-Head Coach Brian Weinrich led the offseason conditioning drills. So many head coaches in the country wish that as many players would be as dedicated as the Bluebirds have been. Instead, they have to deal with a mentality like, “Why should we put in that time if we’re not going to win a state championship anyway?”
Over at NewCath, newly-promoted head coach Dan Wagner and staff do not need to remind the Thoroughbreds what happened two years ago. They came into 2011 as state champions and district rival Covington Holy Cross upset them in the regional title game before winning the state championship.
The Thoroughbreds rebounded to bring the gold back across the Licking River last year. But while they may be head and shoulders above the rest of the region, teams like Lloyd Memorial, Holy Cross and Walton-Verona could beat them if they are not careful.
On the statewide level, Somerset and Caldwell County will definitely enter the season hungry to challenge the Thoroughbreds. Both teams had young quarterbacks last year.
We’ll find out more about these teams in just more than two months when the season begins on Aug. 23. It should be another exciting ride.
G. Michael Graham is preparing to enter his 16th season covering high school sports. He has previously covered high school sports in Ohio, Texas, Tennessee and Alabama in addition to Kentucky.