By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Editor’s Note: This is the third of four stories of Highlands football leading into the 100th season in school history.
The Boyle County Rebels set the mark for the most consecutive football championships in Kentucky with five straight from 1999 to 2003.
The Highlands Bluebirds ended that run in 2004 with a 22-6 victory in Louisville. Chuck Smith coached those dominant Rebel teams that included current NFL player Jacob Tamme and Brodie Overstreet. Smith left Boyle County for an assistant coaching job at the University of Kentucky after the 2004 campaign. He is returning as head coach to Boyle County this season.
Highlands hoped to break that mark one day. It happened in 2012.
“Highlands has always been the team that tries the hardest in the state,” said Dale Mueller, retired Highlands head football coach. “I believed (the Rebels) were out-Highlandsing Highlands so we decided that we had to out-Boyle Boyle. We said they played like 11 Marines and we had to play like 11 Navy Seals. I don’t really know the difference between a Navy Seal and a Marine, but the point was we had to outwork them.”
Few teams have been as consistent as the Bluebirds throughout the years. They have not had a losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1955. Reid Schroeder, a senior linebacker on the 2012 team, said the seniors talked to the freshmen about the hard work and dedication it takes to keep the tradition going.
“It all starts with the winter weight program,” said Grant Beiting, former Highlands player. “It’s not just weights. It’s a lot of fun games to keep everyone going. Highlands puts out those agile teams year in and year out. They might not be the biggest and the strongest. But each year, we have the best feet. That’s something you don’t necessarily see unless you’re on the team. Other than that, it’s about each guy buying into the playbook and doing exactly what they need to do and just really stepping up.”
The Bluebirds made the region finals the following year, but lost 17-0 to eventual state champion Lexington Catholic. The Bluebirds have not been shut out in 117 straight games since then.
That also marked one of two times a team other than Covington Catholic kept the Bluebirds from playing for a state championship in Mueller’s 20-year head coaching tenure. The other time came in the 2002 3A semifinals when Rockcastle County beat Highlands, 45-6 in Mount Vernon. That marked current head coach Brian Weinrich’s first season as Defensive Coordinator.
“I felt all 20 of the Highlands teams that I coached had the talent, work ethic and should have won the state championship,” Mueller said. “I could have done a better job motiving and coaching those teams and we could have won 20 in a row. Ultimately though, it wasn’t about how many games or championships we won, but what we got out of it as men. Nobody is living a happier or more successful life based on how many high school football games you won but you are living a happy and better life due to the characteristics that you have developed and I believe your faith in God. People who see that there is something bigger than themselves and the great strength of the human spirit tend to develop a stronger faith in God.”
The streak started like the run of three straight between 1998 and 2000 with one big similarity. The Bluebirds lost to Covington Catholic in the playoffs the prior season. The Colonels edged the Bluebirds, 25-15 in the second round of the 3A playoffs in 2006 to close out the last year of the four-class system in Kentucky. District opponents met in the first two round of the playoffs that year.
But the following year, Highlands returned the favor and beat the Colonels twice including a 40-0 verdict in the second round of the 5A playoffs. Highlands finished 15-0 winning the 5A title, 28-7 over Bowling Green.
Highlands recorded four shutouts that year allowing just 153 points all year for an average of just around 10 points per game. Joe Fitzgerald and Jake Turner led Highlands defensively with two fumble recoveries each and sophomore Austin Collinsworth had six interceptions.
Josh Conner and quarterback Clay Cecil led the Highlands offense. Conner rushed for 1,719 yards on 216 carries and 28 touchdowns. Cecil completed 63-of-106 passes for 1,076 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Bluebirds saw two teams come within 10 points of them that year. They were Trotwood-Madison (a 24-20 Highlands win) and at Louisville Central (a 21-13 Bluebird victory). The win over Trotwood-Madison game took place at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium.
“All the powers that be picked us to lose that (Trotwood-Madison) game,” Cecil said. “They had all this Division I talent. To go and beat a big team from Ohio gave us a boost to begin the year. We were all really confident. It was cool to do it at Nippert Stadium on a big stage like that.”
The 2008 squad repeated as 5A state champions with a 35-15 win over Christian County. They outscored opponents, 653-187. Clint Crawford led Highlands with 123 carries for 901 yards and 16 touchdowns. Quarterback Tony Guidugli completed 147-of-222 passes for 2,702 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Collinsworth led the Bluebirds with 46 catches for 840 yards and five touchdowns.
The Highlands defense recorded four shutouts that year on its way to a 14-1 year with the only loss coming at Cincinnati Colerain. Collinsworth had four interceptions to lead the Bluebirds and Kody Rosenhagen had three fumble recoveries.
Highlands equaled its school record with its third straight state championship in 2009, 35-7 over John Hardin. The Bluebirds outscored the opposition, 597-166 that year and finished third in the Super 25 USA Today final poll.
The biggest win over that year came 12-7 over Cincinnati St. Xavier at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Sept. 25. Highlands saw Patrick Towles, now at the University of Kentucky, come on and lead the Bluebirds to the victory at quarterback in place of the injured Will Bardo. Middle linebacker Brandon Roller had a crucial interception in the third quarter of that game.
“It validated our team. St. Xavier was the number one team in Ohio,” Roller said. “They had beaten the number one team in Indiana. It was almost more exciting than winning the state championship.”
Towles completed 53-of-109 passes for 1,138 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Collinsworth moved to running back and rushed for 1,502 yards on 172 carries and 23 touchdowns. Nick Buten led the Highlands receivers with 33 catches for 796 yards and eight touchdowns. Drake Bruns led Highlands with four interceptions and Cameron Dierig had three fumble recoveries for the Bluebird defense.
Highlands continued to roll the next season winning its first nine games to win a school-record 37 in a row in 2010. Ryle ended the streak with a 28-26 win in Union to finish the season. The Bluebirds won their fourth straight 5A state championship with a 50-0 throttling of Christian County. They outscored the opposition, 604-204.
Towles led Highlands running and passing the ball. Towles ran for 880 yards on 153 carries and 18 touchdowns and completed 122-of-239 passes for 2,471 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Jordan Streeter (590 yards) and Corey Compton (465) complimented Towles in the backfield. He had plenty of solid receivers to throw the ball to led by Daniel Gold’s 881 yards and nine touchdowns.
Bruns and Carter New led the Highlands defense with five interceptions each. Ethan Bishop had a team-high four fumble recoveries. The Bluebird defense recorded three shutouts that year.
“It’s got to be the coaching,” Beiting said. “Week-in and week-out, they’re up (in the office) until (Midnight) watching film, giving us scouting reports and getting us ready to go. It just carries down year-to-year to the next class.”
The following year saw Highlands equal the state record with its fifth straight state championship and 15-0 mark. The Bluebirds handled Franklin-Simpson, 42-14 for the 4A title.
The biggest win that year came 34-29 at Cincinnati Elder. That marked the first-ever win over the Panthers. Donovan McCoy played quarterback for Highlands in place of the injured Towles and threw a late touchdown pass to David Christian to help the Bluebirds to the win.
“It was pretty big for our class coming from our freshman year,” said Drew Napier, former Highlands player. “We lost to Dixie Heights pretty bad. We just kept building as a team and once we did that, we knew we hit a new milestone.”
Towles earned the Mr. Kentucky Football Award that year. He completed 181-of-279 passes for 3,820 yards, 42 touchdowns and just one interception. Austin “Ozzie” Sheehan led all receivers with 29 catches for 1,013 yards and eight touchdowns. McCoy hauled in 36 catches for 723 yards and seven touchdowns. Towles, Zach Harris and Jake True rushed for more than 500 yards each for Highlands that year.
The Bluebirds set a state record for most points in a season with 849. They allowed just 191 points including four shutouts. New led Highlands with six interceptions with several recording two fumble recoveries each.
McCoy moved to quarterback and led Highlands to its sixth straight title. He rushed for 1,144 yards on 163 carries and 22 touchdowns with Harris rushing for 1,001 yards on 144 carries and 20 scores. Jaylen Hayes and Colin Seidl also made things tough on opponents.
McCoy completed 169-of-267 passes for 2,769 yards, 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Luke Turner was his leading target with 42 catches for 843 yards and eight touchdowns. Quentin Murray led Highlands with five interceptions and younger brother Brady Murray had a team-high two fumble recoveries.
Highlands shut out Collins, 47-0 in the 4A state championship game. Seth Hope had five quarterback sacks in the contest with Trevor Kraft and Gabe Schultz recording one each.
Highlands recorded its second shutout of the year outgaining the Titans, 476-173 in total offense. The Bluebirds won the game without Mueller on the sideline because his mother-in-law passed away in New York.
Collins snapped the streak in last year’s title game. The Titans scored on fourth down with seven seconds left to win the 4A title, 37-34 last year. But the Bluebird players continue to reach out to younger players in Fort Thomas. That have a camp in the summer.
“Our players have always been great role models for the younger players,” Mueller said. “We believe that the four things that make you a great high school football player ( trying hard, having a vision, being a protector of others, and being an unselfish part of a team) are the same qualities that will make you a successful man. By no means do you have to play football to develop those qualities, but on the football team that was our focus. We live in a community where people are raised with a great work ethic and hard work pays off.”
The 100th season of Highlands football starts on Aug. 29. The Bluebirds travel to Campbell County for a 7 p.m. contest.