Thursday, June 22, 2017

Highlands Head Coach Happy for New KHSAA Football State Championship Home

Kentucky State Title Games Returning to Lexington

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Jackson Hagedorn (46) and senior Crosley New (7) bring down Dixie Heights running back AJ Dilts (23) in junior varsity action last season
The tradition-rich Highlands Bluebirds football program has to worry about beating the likes of Covington Catholic, Dixie Heights, South Oldham and even Bowling Green before even thinking about it.

But if the Bluebirds make it back to the Commonwealth of Kentucky's promised land this December or next year, it will be played at a different location than the two locations between 2007 and 2014 when Highlands played in eight straight state championship games winning seven of them. Kroger Field in Lexington, formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium at the University of Kentucky, will play host to the six state football championship games.
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"I was happy for UK. I had heard that (University of Kentucky Head) Coach (Mark) Stoops had been looking to get the games moved there," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "I think any college in any state wants to get a state championship on their campus just to expose the entire campus to thousands of people coming in from all over the state. I'm excited about it as a football fan. It's a neat venue there. It's centrally located for most of the people in the state. I think it's more accessible to more people and more schools. Hopefully as a coach, we'll get to experience it."

That stadium last held the state championships in 1976. Between 1959 and 1966 in addition to 1968 through 1972 saw the games played across the street from Kroger Field at the former Stoll Field. Highlands won its first five of 23 state championships - all in Class 2A - under former head coaches Homer Rice, Owen Hauck and Mike Murphy at Stoll Field.

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association added a fourth class in 1975 and Highlands won the Class 3A title that year under former head coach Roger Walz, 21-0 at Western Kentucky University.

The games moved to Hanger Field at the Eastern Kentucky University campus in 1977 and the Bluebirds won the 3A title over Shelby County, 6-0 that year. Two years later, the games moved to Louisville where they'd stay through 2008 at KFEC Cardinal Stadium then ultimately Papa John's Cardinal Stadium between 2003 and 2008. Highlands won eight state championships at KFEC and three at Papa John's before winning five at Houchen's-LT Smith Stadium in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky University.

Western Kentucky University had held the championship games the last eight seasons. But the games came in conflict with the Conference USA football championship game held the same weekend and it forced games to be spread out over three days instead of two with some teams playing as late as 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The Southeast Conference plays its conference championship games at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Weinrich served as Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator on the 2007 and 2008 state championship teams that played at Papa John's and the teams that played at Western Kentucky between 2009 and 2013. The Bluebirds rallied to beat Owensboro, 49-42 at Western Kentucky to win the Class 4A crown in his first year as head coach. Weinrich guided Highlands down to the Class 4A title game in 2012 when former Head Coach Dale Mueller could not go because of a death in the family.

"I think everyone that was fortunate to play at both would agree that during the game, the stadium, the atmosphere at Western is much more conducive to a high school state championship," Weinrich said. "It's bigger than a high school stadium and is typically a bigger crowd. The way that stadium is designed, it gets pretty loud in there and the (fans) are right on top of you. It is a really neat experience as far as that is concerned. It is a very intimate high school state championship atmosphere. At Papa John's, that just goes straight up. Even if you have a really good crowd, I'm not going to say it felt quiet, but it definitely wasn't as loud as Western."

Weinrich said Houchens-LT Smith Stadium had its logistical issues, especially with the locker rooms. In 2014, Highlands came into the locker room for the 4A title game after Williamsburg had lost to Mayfield, 28-27 in overtime in the 1A championship game. There were some issues with the transition. Weinrich even recalled a time when Highlands won a championship but could not celebrate in the locker room because a curtain separated the Bluebirds and another team preparing for a state championship game.

"Western was not very team friendly. Just getting in and out of there on buses and when you could get in the locker room, it was one headache after another," Weinrich said. "Those problems never got fixed. Rarely was there a really good experience before the game. I talked to many coaches that played there that said the same thing. The people there were as nice as there could be and did the best they could. It's nothing against the people. It just wasn't set up to host multiple games back-to-back with teams sharing locker rooms and things of that nature."

Girls Basketball Championship Locations Decided:

BB&T Arena at the campus of Northern Kentucky University has played host to the girls basketball state championships the past two years and will play host to them again in 2018. But the games will move to same site as the boys Sweet 16 in 2019 and 2020 at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The 2020 location has an option to reconsider if the KHSAA can't obtain a corporate title partner.

Highlands last played in both the boys and girls Sweet 16 in 2001.The boys Sweet 16 has been played at Rupp every year since 1995. The Ladybirds played in Western Kentucky University's Diddle Arena that year. The girls Sweet 16 stayed in Bowling Green through the 2015 season.

Another Youth Camp:

The Bluebirds held their annual Youth Camp at David Cecil Memorial Stadium two weeks ago. Weinrich recalls the camp taking place every year since he came on staff in 1995.

"The biggest thing we want to do at that camp is want the young guys to associate the word fun when they hear the word football," Weinrich said. "They want to come back the next year and sign up to play football. Hopefully, that'll lead to them playing for us someday and being excited about it."

Highlands senior wide receiver Chas Sand attended the camp when he was younger. Sand helped the Junior Varsity team to a 6-3 mark. Sand is a candidate to help prevent teams from doubling or tripling standout Nick Veneman.

"It would say to have fun and play with everything you got," Sand said. "Basically, (it's about) showing up every day and just doing the best you can to make not only yourself better, but those around you (better) making sure we're heading in the right direction."

Highlands travels to Cooper to open the 2017 season on Aug. 18. Game time is 7:30 p.m. in Union.

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