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Friday, August 1, 2014

100th Season Celebration: Success of Bluebird football built upon generations of excellence

G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands has won at least three state championships in every decade since the 1960s.
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

Editor’s Note: This is a series of stories about the history of Highlands football leading up to the 100th season.

One really has to go back in time to imagine the beginning of this great tradition.

That time came before the trophies and banners. It came before the joyful trips to Louisville, Lexington, Richmond and Bowling Green. It even came before the Cake Eating. In fact, it came two years before the Kentucky High School Association football playoffs began.

The year was 1957. Highlands concluded an undefeated with a 20-6 victory over Danville in the Rotary Classic Bowl at Covington Holmes led by players like defensive back Denny McAtee. That marked the third mythical state championship for the Bluebirds. The other two came in 1930 and 1943. But that was the year former Highlands Head Coach Owen Hauck said the ball started rolling.

Highlands has still not had a losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1955 for a span of 59 years and has won at least three state championships every decade since the 1960s. The Bluebirds have since become the winningest program in Kentucky in terms of all-time victories with an overall record of 855-227-26. Only Valdosta (Ga.) has more wins with 882 in program history.

The KHSAA began with three classes in 1959 and expanded to four classes in 1975. The latest expansion to six classes occurred in 2007. In the early years, the schools in Jefferson County played in the largest Class AAA. But those schools were gradually placed in their respective classes by the mid-1980s.

The early classes had an advantage that remains true today entering the 100th season of Highlands football. It will be a better situation starting next year with the addition of a new building in Death Valley.

“We were one of the first schools to get an offseason weight program for our players,” Hauck said. “They were lifting weight and running in the winter time and also in the summer. If they were in other sports, that was important too. If they were not doing anything, then we wanted them lifting weights. We used to run in the halls in those days in the old building.”

Rice coached Highlands between 1954 and 1961. The Bluebirds finished AA runner-up in 1959 to Henderson (12-7) before pulling off consecutive titles in 1960 (21-13 over Lexington Lafayette) with a senior-laden squad and 1961 (12-0 over Richmond Madison). Rice said Highlands should have been in A based on enrollment.

Rice spoke to Louisville Courier-Journal sports reporter Jim Cox before the 1960 season and asked his opinion of the top programs in Kentucky. Cox listed the Bluebirds along with Covington Holmes, Hazard, Bowling Green, Ashland, Louisville Male and Lafayette among those teams. Highlands took care of all six of them. Male won 3A that year. Rice, 87, still lives in Atlanta (Georgia) and teaches a class at Georgia Tech. He left Highlands and coached at the University of Cincinnati and even the Cincinnati Bengals.

“There was no argument,” Rice said. “We were the best team in the state. The coaches kept it going.”

Walz quarterbacked the Bluebirds to those first two titles. He had plenty of help from teammates like running backs John and Jim Burt.

“As players, everyone was excited (about the new system),” Walz said. “In Northern Kentucky, you had A and AA. You had very few schools who were A like Beechwood and Dayton. It was an opportunity. Every other sport had a playoff.”

Walz later served as head coach at Highlands in 1974 and 1975. Highlands won the 1975 Class 3A title, 21-0 over Franklin-Simpson.

“You know what it’s like as a player to win the state championship and you’d love for your players to be able to experience the same thing,” Walz said. “That’s part of the motivation. You know how much work the head coach and assistants did when you played. You know you’ll do whatever it takes as a coach to prepare you kids. I think the whole staff realizes that.”

Hauck took over as head coach in 1962 and served as head coach of Highlands until 1966. The Bluebirds made it back to the AA title game in 1963 losing 14-7 to Caldwell County, but they came back to beat Richmond Madison, 36-0 in the title game.

Recently retired Highlands Head Coach Dale Mueller’s older brother Dan was a junior on the 1964 championship team that included running back Jerry Voorhees. The Bluebirds beat the Hazard Bulldogs, 14-13 in the state semifinals that year on a muddy field. It marked their fourth win since 1959 over Hazard in that round. Unlike today’s teams that have seen about 100 sophomores, juniors and seniors on the sidelines, Highlands won with about 30-40 players.

“You had to kick extra points and field goals going into that one end zone because there was a dropdown to the river,” Dan Mueller said. “They warned us not to run too far out of the one end zone.”

Hazard had two running backs that went to the University of Kentucky in Wilbur and Houston Hogg. That’s the same last name of the character J.D. “Boss” Hogg from the old television series Dukes of Hazzard linked to Hazard.

Dale and Dan Mueller lived on Park Avenue in Newport initially. But the family moved to Fort Thomas when he was 4.

“I just loved coming to Highlands football games,” Dale Mueller said. “My brother was older just starting at Highlands Middle School. I was in the Kindergarten or First grade coming up watching games. I can remember watching those games like it was yesterday. It was so big to me back in the 1960s.”

Highlands finished 2A runner-up in 1966 to Hopkinsville (27-6). Then Mike Murphy took over as head coach the next seven seasons and led the Bluebirds to the 2A titles in 1968 (32-7 over Elizabethtown) and 1970 by a 30-13 count over Hopkinsville and future Kentucky Wildcat standout running back Sonny Collins. Dale Mueller played offensive guard and middle linebacker on the 1970 team.

“Highlands has had good football for a long time,” Murphy said. “They beat a lot of other good football teams that maybe had better backgrounds than they did. A lot of athletes come out, gone to college and some even went on to the pros from there.”

Bill Hermann succeeded Walz as head coach and led the Bluebirds for eight years. Highlands won the 1977 3A state championship, 6-0 over Shelby County. The Bluebirds then captured consecutive 3A championships in 1981 and 1982 over Elizabethtown (40-24) and Franklin-Simpson (6-0) respectively.

“It was what we expected to do every year,” Hermann said. “You know what it takes to win. It’s a matter of willingness to do those things – all the hours it takes. For every hour a coach puts in, a coach puts in probably twice as many. That’s pretty much the name of the game.”

Former Highlands assistant coach and Dixie Heights head coach Tom Spritzky played on the teams that repeated as state champs for the first time in 20 years. Spritzky retired from coaching after the 2011 campaign. Hermann emphasized to players in the first meeting that he only wanted them there for internally self-motivated reasons.

“When you work in that program as long as I did, all the teams seem to take on the same quality,” Hermann said. “They have a lot of pride. They are willing to do whatever it takes. Some of the teams had better athletes. I’m sure there’s pressure. My wife says that’s self-inflicted. I have to agree with that to some extent. They will take losing, but they don’t like it. The kids have a lot of support from their parents.”

Jack Eicher led the Bluebirds from 1984 to 1987. He coached current Highlands head softball coach Rob Coffey. The 1986 team finished the regular season undefeated. But Danville edged the Bluebirds, 35-34 in double overtime that year. Eicher left for the Laurel County job after his time in Fort Thomas. He currently resides in Concord (North Carolina).

“We had a really big win against Covington Catholic (6-0 in 1986),” Eicher said. “I thought that was one of our better games. I really loved the kids and coached I had the opportunity to work with.”

Tom Duffy came up from Danville in 1988. The Bluebirds went 61-15 during his six-year tenure in Fort Thomas with two state championships.

“They were down just a little bit from what they had been,” Duffy said. “I knew the Highlands tradition. I had two young kids at the time. It was a great experience for us. We were lucky to win two. We brought back the discipline and hard work they’d had years before that.”

The first championship came in 1989 by a 7-3 count over Paducah Tilghman and quarterback Randy Wyatt. Wyatt had been the head coach of the Blue Tornado for six years including a 42-25 loss to Highlands in Paducah this past season. He resigned after leading the Blue Tornado to the 3A semifinals last year. Highlands fell 24-23 to Paducah Tilghman earlier that year.

Paducah Tilghman entered the game hungry for a win. The Blue Tornado lost the previous two title games to Covington Catholic in 1987 (16-6) and 1988 (30-24 in overtime).

Paducah Tilghman hit a field goal in the first quarter and held the slim 3-0 lead most of the game. But Highlands scored the game-winner with 5:53 left in the game when quarterback Chris Gallichio hit Shane Daugherty for a 6-yard touchdown pass behind an offensive line that included Doug Bryant. Current Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich had three catches for 36 yards in the contest.

The Bluebirds came back and won the 1992 3A state championship, 15-6 over the same Blue Tornado squad. Behind a huge defensive line, Highlands held Paducah Tilghman Kentucky Mr. Football quarterback Billy Jack Haskins to just 8-of-24 passing for 178 yards and a touchdown.

“Billy Jack Haskins set all sorts of passing records that year,” said Michael Mason, former Highlands defensive end and tight end. “We came out with a good defensive game plan to keep them in front of us and not let them get the big play. Offensively, we stuck with our bread and butter of running the ball and tried to shorten the game as much as possible.”

Highlands rushed the ball 51 times for 245 yards in that contest. The Bluebirds led 7-0 after a 1-yard run by Corey Scarlato in the first quarter. Highlands added another touchdown with 5:53 left in the final stanza when Adam Crawford ran it in from a yard out.

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