|Contributed Photo. Highlands graduate Derek Smith (right) makes a play for the Bluebirds in the late 1990s. Smith started for three years at Tight End and Defensive End for Highlands helping the Bluebirds to the state championships in 1996 and 1998.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of stories about past teams leading up and into the 100th season of Highlands football.
It was the offseason after the 1993 campaign. Highlands lost 29-26 in overtime to Conner in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs in Tom Duffy’s final season. Duffy took the job at Henderson County.
The man who replaced him took the bar higher over the next 20 years with an impressive record of 250-36 and he already lived in Fort Thomas. That was 1973 Highlands graduate Dale Mueller. He already had experience as a head football coach at Cincinnati Withrow and Sycamore.
“I was excited to apply for the Highlands Head Coaching position when it came open,” Mueller said. “I didn’t know many guys at the high school, but I knew a lot of the guys in the elementary schools and I wanted to coach them.”
Highlands played a lot of Wishbone and Wing-T formations under Duffy. But Mueller and staff ultimately switched to the Spread attack giving defensive coordinators plenty of nightmares.
“The players adjusted well to the schemes that I was coaching,” Mueller said. “We have always had an incredibly dedicated group of football players at Highlands and they did a tremendous job of learning the new concepts.”
The first thing Highlands needed to do when Mueller took over was regain the edge against rival Covington Catholic. The Colonels won both meetings in 1994 in his first season as head coach. They won the regular-season match-up convincingly, 42-6 before winning the playoff game by a 7-3 count on its way to a 24-21 win over Bowling Green in the Class 3A title game. At that point, the Colonels had won six of the previous seven meetings in the rivalry.
But the Bluebirds turned the tide in that series the following year. They handed CovCath a 48-18 defeat in the regular season before beating the Colonels again in the second round of the playoffs, 3-0. However, the Bowling Green Purples beat Highlands, 28-12 in the 3A title game.
But the 1996 team came back and dominated the competition going 15-0 on its way to the first of what would be 11 state championships under Mueller. Highlands finished the season ranked 21st in the USA Today Super 25 final high school rankings. The Bluebirds knocked off Hopkinsville, 21-14 in the 3A state championship that year.
“It set a precedent for what kind of team we were going to be,” said Will Chambers, former Highlands wide receiver and 1997 graduate. “One of the things Dale did was look at the team and look at the talent he had and be able to develop the type of system around that.”
The Bluebirds saw veteran senior starters Justin Frisk and Stephen Lickert start in the backfield. Frisk rushed for 1,932 yards and 31 touchdowns. Toby Hlad blocked for them on the offensive line and also played on the defensive line. Scott Kuhnhein and Randy Stegman went on to play at Ohio State and Miami (Ohio) respectively. Defensively, Brady Grimm led at defensive back with Ben Pogue and Nathan Lindeman making things tough for opposing offenses at middle linebacker.
“Whether guys are a year or 10 years out of high school, everyone always seems to migrate back to Fort Thomas,” Frisk said. “It was more important for our kids at the time to not be a class that went all four years without winning a (state) title. I’ve spoken to players at other schools where making the playoffs in their four years was a goal.”
Quarterback Jared Lorenzen and wide receiver Josh Hasson made history in a 55-7 win over Campbell County. They connected for a 99-yard touchdown pass.
The Bluebirds hoped to repeat as champions the following year. They had not done that since the 1981 and 1982 seasons. Highlands entered the playoffs with an impressive 9-1 mark having lost to just Cincinnati Moeller, 21-20 to open the season. They’d beaten Covington Catholic, 24-22 in the regular season.
But things changed in the Class 3A region title game. The Colonels prevailed by a 41-35 count in double overtime and won the state championship over Hopkinsville. That game set things in motion for a tough offseason.
Highlands put together another undefeated 15-0 season. The Bluebirds pounded Louisville Waggener, 56-7 in the 3A title game. Highlands beat Louisville Male, 51-41 to open the season in the St. Luke Hospitals Champions Bowl. No one came closer than that. The Bluebirds garnered a 19th ranking in the USA Today Super 25 poll.
“We took it personally and every single time we were together as a football team, we were pissed off,” Lorenzen said. “We literally took that out on every single team we played. We made sure that when we got up, we were going to finish teams.”
Lorenzen won Mr. Kentucky Football that year and Derek Smith finished runner-up before they landed at the University of Kentucky. Smith started three years at tight end and defensive end.
The Bluebirds set a number of Kentucky state records. Among them were the most point in a season with 801, most points in a title game, largest state championship margin of victory at 49 points, highest per-game yardage average at 492.5 yards, most extra points in a year at 92.
Brennan Jones booted 90 of them for Highlands for both a state and national record. Highlands also set the state bars with 113 team touchdowns, 636 offensive yards in a game and highest point-per-game average at 53.4. The state records for most points and team touchdowns in a season remained intact until 2011 when Highlands put up 849 points and 121 touchdowns.
“The game is changing. We were one of the first teams to spread the ball around like that,” Smith said. “You have to have a quarterback who makes reads and knows where to throw the ball. Two seconds means everything. Defenses try to disguise coverages.”
Highlands scored 62 or more points six times that year including a school-record 88 in a victory over Campbell County. Current Highlands assistant Nick Behymer returned an interception for a touchdown in that game. Lorenzen said the lopsided scores were a big reason the KHSAA installed the running clock in 2001.
Brent Grover led the Bluebirds in tackles that year. Brian Ulbricht went on to play football at Mueller’s college alma mater of Cornell University and Noah Gibson led Highlands at running back. Current doctor Tyler Browning played on the defensive line despite a 5-foot-5-inch height for the Bluebirds.
The Bluebirds won the 3A state championships the next two years equaling a school record for the most consecutive state championships. Three in a row had been done just three other times prior to then. Beechwood captured four in a row from 1991 to 1994 with Pikeville (1987-89) and Louisville Trinity (1988-90) having won it three straight times.
Highlands finished 14-1 both seasons. The only losses in both seasons came to Cincinnati Elder. The Bluebirds beat the Owensboro Red Devils, 48-10 and 48-27 in the 1999 and 2000 3A championship games respectively. The 2000 team finished 13th in the USA Today Super 25 poll and beat Louisville Trinity, 42-29 in the Recreation Bowl to open the season.
Gino Guidugli started at quarterback for the Bluebirds. He threw a school-record 53 touchdown passes in 2000 before going on to the University of Cincinnati. He is currently an assistant at Central Michigan University.
“I didn’t really think about (following Lorenzen),” Guidugli said. “I was just going out there trying to be the best player I could be. I just wanted to compete in anything I did. I had a good role model in front of me though.”
Wide receiver Brett Hamblen lit opposing secondaries up for the Bluebirds in 2000. Hamblen had individual state records for most touchdown receptions in a season with 27 and most touchdown receptions in a game with six. The Bluebirds also threw a state record of nine touchdowns in an 81-0 win over Covington Holmes. Guidugli had eight of them. The other two Division I-A recruits on that team were Brent Grover and Ben Scott.
“It was what we do every year,” Behymer said. “It’s what Highlands football has been the last 100 years. You have a group of guys that come together as a team. They try as hard as they can and work together. They all spend all offseason together. When the games start up, it’s about winning each game. You’re not looking on to any other week.”
The Bluebirds did not make it back to the championship game until 2003. They lost 44-10 to Boyle County that year marking the fifth consecutive state championship for the Rebels. But Highlands ended that streak with a 22-6 win in the title game the following year. Running back James Hubbard led Highlands to victory in that game rushing the ball 19 times for 70 yards and a touchdown.
The 2004 team finished 14-1 also losing just to Elder, 25-15. The Bluebirds posted six shutouts that season.
Three seniors from that team in Jordan Nevels, Mike Mitchell and Justin Auton signed with Kentucky, Ohio University and Eastern Kentucky University respectively. Mitchell still plays in the National Football League with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mitchell transferred in from Covington Catholic before the year. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association declared him ineligible a few days before the title game. The KHSAA also forced Highlands to forfeit all the in-state games that Mitchell played in. But the KHSAA rescinded that decision in 2010.
Highlands finished the first 11 years of the Mueller Era with five state championships and two runner-up finishes. They set a tone for what was to come.