|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior defensive lineman Drew Bravard (33) tackles Pulaski County senior George Gregory (16) in Friday's Class 5A state semifinal game in Fort Thomas.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Bradley Greene (86) makes a move on a punt return in Friday's 41-31 loss to Pulaski County in the Class 5A state semifinals.|
But this Bluebird team (8-6 overall) will be remembered for bouncing back from the program's first 1-5 start since 1939 and making it to the Class 5A state semifinals with seven straight wins. Highlands still won its 19th district championship in the last 20 years, extended the winning streak over Covington Catholic to 15 and claimed its ninth straight region championship, which is the longest current streak in Kentucky.
Highlands also managed to record its 60th straight winning season. The season ended with a 41-31 loss to the Pulaski County Maroons in the Class 5A state semifinals Friday.
"Our guys battled hard. We ended up with a great year," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "They battled through adversity and I'm just real happy. They continued to play the whole season. They could have tanked it a long time ago. They just decided they didn't want that to happen. Sometimes, you just end up on the other side."
Highlands struggled against teams with winning records this year. The six Bluebird losses came to Pulaski County (13-1), Simon Kenton (13-1), Scott County (11-2), Ryle (9-3), Cooper (10-3) and Louisville St. Xavier (7-5) for a combined 63-15.
The Maroons battle Bowling Green for the 5A crown on Saturday at 8 p.m. CST. Simon Kenton lost to Lexington Lafayette in the 6A state semifinals after beating Cooper for the region crown. Ryle and St. Xavier wound up losing to Louisville Trinity in the second round of the 6A playoffs.
The eight Highlands wins came against teams with a combined 16-53 record. That includes two wins over Dixie Heights (3-9) and Covington Catholic (5-8).
Not intimidated by atmosphere:
Many teams would have folded trailing by 17 against Highlands midway through the third quarter. But the Maroons did not. They scored 27 straight after Jared Dougherty's field goal gave Highlands a 31-14 advantage with 7:23 left in the third quarter. Pulaski County ended Highlands' 30-game home playoff winning streak as a result.
"That's what we talked about all week," said John Hines, Pulaski County Head Coach. "This is one of the great programs in the history of Kentucky high school football. It can be an intimidating place to play with the people on you, the noise and all that. But our team is pretty resilient. They just believed they could pull it out. I'm proud of them for that. They're fun to coach."
Pulaski County came to Fort Thomas in 2009 after winning the first-ever district and region championships in program history. The Bluebirds, led by the likes of Austin Collinsworth, Brandon Roller, Will Bardo and Patrick Towles, handed the Maroons a 52-12 whipping.
Since then, the Maroons have been back to the region title game five of the past six years. They lost to the Harlan County Black Bears in 2010 and 2012, but have won three straight and are now making a third straight appearance in the state championship game. Pulaski County lost to Bowling Green in the 2013 5A title game but beat Graves County, 14-7 in last year's 5A championship game.
First semifinal loss since 2002:
The Bluebirds had won 10 straight semifinal contests coming into the game. Highlands last lost a semifinal game in 2002 at Rockcastle County, 45-6. The Bluebirds beat the Lexington Catholic Knights in the last four region title games.
No ground gained on Valdosta:
Highlands entered the season 23 games behind Valdosta (Georgia) for the most wins in program history in the country. The Wildcats finished 8-4 this season losing in the second round of Georgia's largest Class 6A playoffs.
Highlands is 876-235-26 overall and Valdosta is 899-220-34. The Wildcats will be looking to become the first team to reach the 900-win plateau next season.
Dougherty finished fifth in Kentucky history:
Highlands senior kicker Jared Dougherty finished fifth in Kentucky history with 207 career point-after touchdowns. He made four in the semifinal loss.
Bluebirds to graduate 29 seniors:
The 29 Highlands seniors are Dougherty, quarterback Austin Hergott, running back Nick Kendall, wide receivers Mitch Cain, Eric Miller, TJ Sipple, Tanner Groneck, Chandler New, Austin Horner, Ryan Conley, defensive backs Thomas Wood, Austin Mayhew, Austin Beal, Taylor Perez, linebackers Joe Dressman, Conner Welsch, Hank Johnson, Ben Ziegler, Luke Lindeman, defensive linemen Jordan Johnson, Caleb Mullikin, Tyler Robinson, Tyler Sexton, Dalton Mallery and offensive linemen Bo Hebel, Elijah Cox-Miller, Nathan Raleigh, Carson Haas and Evan Richardson.