|Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands wide receiver Alex Veneman (left) hauls in a pass against Lexington Catholic in last year's Class 4A semifinal contest. Veneman leads a solid returning core of wide receivers for quarterback Beau Hoge to throw to.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Some may be wondering if the Blue and White will go through a Viva La Vida.
That is a 2008 song by the British band Coldplay about a king who falls from his throne to an average citizen. But the Highlands Bluebirds football team hopes tradition proves otherwise.
The Bluebirds enter their 100th season in school history hoping to reclaim the gold trophy after a runner-up finish last season. Highlands lost to the Collins Titans, 37-34 when back-up quarterback Browning Bercherer found Nathan Sames over the middle for a 12-yard touchdown on fourth down with seven seconds left in the game. That marked an end to state-records of 34 straight playoff wins and six consecutive state championships.
A few days later, veteran Highlands Head Coach Dale Mueller announced his retirement to spend more time with family. Highlands had gone 250-36 in those 20 seasons with 11 state championships and three runner-up finishes.
But the new head coach is no stranger to the program. Highlands promoted 19-year assistant Brian Weinrich to Head Coach in early January. Weinrich had a hand in those 11 state championships and played wide receiver on the 1989 Class 3A championship team.
“These guys get one shot at a senior year,” Weinrich said. “Whatever happened last year, what happens next year or what happened 20 years ago, it matters, but not today. We want to make sure we put those guys in position to have that opportunity (to play for a state championship).”
The returning players and coaches went back to work in January. They’ll tell you they’ve tried to put that game on Dec. 7 in the rear-view mirror quickly.
“It’s about working hard on fundamentals and listening to the coaches,” said Jacob Noe, Highlands senior linebacker. “It’s what we’ve always done. We’re not thinking about last year. We’re moving on. That’s pretty much it.”
Weinrich had been the defensive coordinator since 2002. He’s spending most of his time with the offense this year.
“It gives us a lot of motivation because a lot of people say we can’t,” said Tyler Robinson, Highlands junior defensive lineman. “But the change is not really a big (head coaching) change for me because (Weinrich and Mueller) somewhat co-owned the team.”
The Bluebirds rank first in Kentucky and second in the country for the most wins in school history. They are 855-227-26 ranking only behind the 882-214-34 record of Valdosta (Georgia). Highlands has not had a losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1955.
Consistency is the big reason for that. Not only has Weinrich been on staff for a while, many of his assistants have as well. That’s a trait similar to Weinrich’s favorite National Football League team in the New England Patriots. Head Coach Bill Belichick is entering his 14th season as head coach of the Patriots and 40th as a coach in the NFL.
“In the NFL where there’s so much parity, the Patriots have won the (AFC East) 11 years in a row,” Weinrich said. “They’ve done it with back-up quarterbacks and no-name defenses. Every guy you hear from that plays for the Patriots for Coach Belicheck, it’s about how they have a system and believe in doing things a certain way. You have to admire what they stand for.”
Like any team, there are some unknowns as to which players will rise up this year. But many players partake in the offseason programs and even go to camps to improve. Robinson learned some new techniques on the defensive line at the Blue-Grey Super combine held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton (Ohio).
Highlands will play two scrimmages this year to help determine roles. The Bluebirds take on Trinity at home on Aug. 15 and at Cincinnati St. Xavier on Aug. 22.
“We’re just trying to continue to build that depth and play a lot of players. We’ll continue to do that early in the season,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “That’s been our philosophy in scrimmages and everything until we get into district play. A lot of times, some guys you didn’t really expect to play a lot have a huge impact. Some guys in other scenarios would have been stuck behind other people. But when give the opportunity, they kind of show us they can be the next person to play.”
Highlands plays the same nine regular season opponents as last year in opposite locations. The only exception is the Florida opponent. Miami Christopher Columbus High comes to Fort Thomas on Oct. 11.
Covington Catholic, John Hardin, Paducah Tilghman and Cincinnati Elder come to Fort Thomas this year. The Bluebirds venture to Harrison County, Covington Holmes, Campbell County, Lexington Bryan Station and Warren Central. They play all but two games against teams from Northern Kentucky starting in 2015.