|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Grant Murray (24) makes a move against Pulaski County in the Class 5A state semifinal contest. Murray will be the leading returning rusher next season.|
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association State Football Championships will take place Thursday through Sunday. But the vaunted Highlands Bluebirds program will not be there for the first time since 2006, which marked the final season of just four classes.
Highlands had gone to state championship games eight straight years winning it seven times. But the Pulaski County Maroons (13-1) came to Fort Thomas on Friday and scored 27 straight points to win the Class 5A semifinal contest 41-31. Highlands scored just three points in the second half after building a 28-14 halftime lead.
The 8-6 campaign may have been down by Highlands standards. The Bluebirds had not lost six games in a season since 1948 including a 1-5 start for the first time since 1939.
"Anytime we lose in the state playoffs whether it's the state championship or whenever, it just motivates us for next year," said Bradley Greene, Highlands junior defensive back. "We definitely have a sour taste in our mouths right now. All we can do is work harder for the upcoming season."
But there are reasons to look at the glass half-full. Highlands did rebound from the rough start to keep several streaks together. The Bluebirds recorded their 60th straight winning season, won their 19th district championship in 20 years, extended the winning streak over district opponents to 31 straight and captured their 33rd region championship. Only Mayfield has more region championships in Kentucky history with 35.
"You came to practice on Mondays and it was hard to tell what happened the weekend before whether we won a big game or lost," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "These guys showed up every week and just did everything they could to get better. It was just unbelievable to see how positive they were. They kept trusting each other and trusting in the system. It paid off for them in the end."
Highlands still recorded its ninth straight region championship. That is the longest-running streak in Kentucky.
|This is an advertisement. Call Joe. 513-236-1541.|
Highlands averaged 130.2 yards per game passing and 197.5 rushing. The rushing game was almost on par with last year's Class 4A state championship team with an average of just more than 200 yards per game. But last year's passing game averaged about 237 yards per game. In seven of the eight Highlands wins, the running game led the way.
Defensively, Highlands struggled against balanced teams. The Bluebirds allowed averages of 202.1 yards per game rushing and 154.4 passing.
Highlands graduates 29 seniors and Weinrich said filling in on both lines will be crucial. Highlands graduates offensive linemen Bo Hebel, Carson Haas, Nathan Raleigh and Evan Richardson and defensive linemen Tyler Robinson, Caleb Mullikin and Tyler Sexton. Michael Dunn and Michael Davidson return on the offensive line along with Kyle Finfrock. Drew Bravard, Connor Myers and Jacob Johnson also return on the defensive line.
At the skill positions, Highlands returns running backs Grant Murray and Jared Pulsfort in addition to wide receivers Braden Posey, Nick Veneman, Trent Buchert and Griffin Huber. Highlands graduates leading rusher and receiver Nick Kendall in addition to wide receiver TJ Sipple. Kendall rushed for 1,485 yards on 226 carries and 21 touchdowns and caught 27 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bluebirds will have a new starting quarterback as Austin Hergott will graduate and take his talents to Central Michigan University. Three players battling for the spot will be juniors Brady Gosney, Cam'Ron Johnston and sophomore Carl Schoellman.
On defense, linebackers Luke Lindeman, Ben Ziegler, Conner Welsch, Hank Johnson and Joe Dressman graduate in addition to defensive backs Taylor Perez and Austin Beal. But Dalton Cornett, Trent Webster, Trey Bowden and Luke Meyer return at linebacker and Kyle Rust, Crosely New and Sam Taylor return at defensive back. Greene led Highlands with four interceptions this year.
The future is ever so bright for Highlands as the junior varsity team finished 7-2 and the freshman team finished 7-3. Those marked major improvements from last year.
"It's obviously better (with winning records) than the opposite but JV and freshman are not about the records," Weinrich said. "It's about getting guys in the program and get excited about playing. Each year, we just try to get each guy better and in the best situation for them and the team. We're expecting another big team next year. We're expecting a big freshman team next year. That's one of the keys. The more guys you have, the better your team is going to be for a lot of reasons."
Highlands will take December off before beginning preparations for 2016 in January. The Bluebirds usually work out after school three days a week in the winter.
The final notebook of the season was published last Saturday and mentioned the Highlands seniors who finished out the year. The 29 seniors are:
Jared 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.