Thursday, July 20, 2017

Highlands Championship Team Recap

Seniors on 1996 Highlands State Championship Football Team Maintain Friendships

PHOTO: Ernest Coleman, Cincinnati Enquirer. Highlands senior Justin Frisk (32) breaks a tackle in the Class 3A state championship game and scores the tying touchdown. Frisk rushed for 1,932 yards and 31 touchdowns that year. He currently works with former teammate Matt Kleier at MK Interiors in Bellevue.
The 1996 Class 3A state champion Highlands Bluebirds football team may be remembered for the dominance on the field.

But something bigger stands out to many of those players. It's something they carry with them in the present.

"When you’re playing, I think all you think about are the wins and the times you had out on the field, but looking back all the good times you had in the locker room and guys you are still friends with today, all the memories from summer practices and traveling around playing all the good football teams," said Jeremy Baioni, a wide receiver on that team. "Those are the things that are the fondest to me. We still talk about the things that happened that year. Obviously, going 15-0 and winning the state title is always fun, but as you get older, you remember the wins. But you don't think about that as much sometimes as you do hanging with a bunch of buddies and a bunch of classmates."
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Baioni has been the head baseball coach at Highlands since 2009. Another senior on that team in kicker Andy Raaker is one of his assistants. They've helped guide the Bluebirds to three straight 9th Region baseball championships.

The biggest name that people remember is senior Justin Frisk. The running back and outside linebacker played at Thomas More College after rushing for 1,932 yards and 31 touchdowns. Current Campbell County head coach and senior Stephen Lickert gave the Bluebirds a solid one-two punch in the backfield. Lickert also played at inside linebacker.

“It was such a special group of guys," said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach. "Altogether, the players and the coaches were such a close-knit fraternity and just believed in each other so much and had so much fun together. It was just so neat to go 15-0.”

The championship marked the first of a state-record 11 under Mueller's guidance. That team also finished 21st in the USA Today Super 25 final poll. It also marked the first of five undefeated seasons during Mueller's 20-year tenure as head coach.

"It was a really unselfish group of guys who really wanted to win," Mueller said. "The team really centered around giving Justin Frisk the ball and having him run it. But to do that, everybody had to play his part. The (offensive) line had to block. The other running backs had to run it when it was their turn. You had to play great defense.”

Mueller recently played in a fantasy football league with some of those players. Frisk currently works with Matt Kleier, a senior defensive back and running back, at MK Interiors located in Bellevue.

Senior P.J. Sauer quarterbacked the team. Offensive linemen like senior Toby Hlad and junior Scott Kuhnhein, who went to Ohio State, paved the way for Frisk and Lickert. Sauer also had nice wide receivers such as juniors Will Stinson and Randy Stegman and sophomore Derek Smith. Stinson and Stegman also played defensive back. The motivation for the teams stemmed from losing 28-12 to Bowling Green in the Class 3A state championship game in 1995.

“Being part of a team that really like to be part of something is what it’s all about," Mueller said. "You’re getting life-long skills and you’re having fun and making great friends. Nobody really had a better or worse life because they won high school football games. Developing a hard-working mentality does mean a lot.”

The roster lists 59 players from that team, not including freshmen. That's different from the 80 to sometimes near 100 players that dress on Friday nights for the Bluebirds these days. But Highlands still tried to use depth to its advantage.

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“Some of the guys played both ways," Mueller said. "From the beginning, we tried to play as many guys just one way as we could or find them time to rest. Guys playing one way are less likely to get injured because they’re just not taking that much amount of hits. One of the things (doctors) are saying is teams are hitting too much so you take a 16, 17, 18-year-old guy and make him both plays, he plays a 15-game schedule, he goes to practice each day. He just takes too many hits when he’s a two-way player.”

Highlands opened the season with a 22-17 win over defending Class 4A state champion Louisville St. Xavier. That marked just one of two victories over the Tigers in eight meetings in school history. Highlands has not beaten St. Xavier since then.

“They had a middle linebacker named Bernard Jackson, who went to (The University of) Tennessee on a full scholarship," Mueller said. "He seemed to take the inside like two people would. They were highly favored. Our guys just played so hard and beat them. You just knew from the start it was going to be a special team.”

Highlands took down Campbell County, 55-7 in the next game. Back-up quarterback Jared Lorenzen, a sophomore, found fellow sophomore Josh Hasson for a 99-yard touchdown pass to tie a state record.

In the 12 games between St. Xavier and the state semi-finals at Bell County, Highlands outscored its opponents, 517-121 for an average margin of victory of exactly 33 points including four shut-outs. The tightest win came 27-12 against Newport Central Catholic.

Highlands found out Defensive Coordinator Jim "Red Dog" Dougherty came down with cancer before the season. The players hoped to carry Dougherty off the field after winning the state championship. He passed away on Oct. 4, 1996.

Highlands took down Conner, 48-19 the day Dougherty passed away. Senior running back and defensive back Brady Grimm returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in that game.

"When we showed up at Conner, it was really weird because it was one of those nights where the sky was completely red right before kickoff," Grimm said. "The first kick-off went out of bounds and I assumed we would take the ball at the 30 or wherever it was placed. (Coach) Mueller turned to us and said, 'No. Get back out there.' We forced them to kick off a second time. I did a fake to Frisk, which everyone followed him as being the top athlete and returner and took it around the left side and ran it in clear. I think it was untouched. Right as that happened, I went to the sideline and the team pretty much everyone collected on the sideline for a little bit of a moment and lots of tears."

The 33-0 blanking of Conner in the region championship game set up another battle with the Bell County Bobcats down in Pineville. Highlands had knocked off the then-defending Class 3A state champions Bobcats, 21-6 in the state semifinals in 1992 on its way to the second state championship under former Head Coach Tom Duffy.

The cold conditions did not make things easy for the Bluebirds. Frisk finished with 180 yards rushing. The Bobcats led 7-0 and 14-7 before Sauer hit Smith on a 4th-and-15 from the Bell County 17 in the third quarter to pull the Bluebirds within one at 14-13.

Lickert and senior outside linebacker Jason Woods (also played running back) stopped Bell County quarterback Trevor Barton six inches short of a first-down on a fourth-down scamper with 7:34 left in the game.

Highlands took over at its own 9 and marched down to the Bell County 13. On fourth-and-one, Highlands went for it but a penalty set the Bluebirds back five yards. That's when junior Damon Chuke stepped forward and hit a 35-yard field goal inside the right upright with 2:31 left in the game to put the Bluebirds up for good at 16-14.

“We did play on a very muddy field. People accused them of stuff but none of that has ever been proven. We were a speed team," Mueller said. "We liked to play on a dry field. We were just struggling all game long. It was just as exciting of a game as you can play in."

Highlands then capped off the championship with a 21-14 win over Hopkinsville at the University of Louisville's Cardinal Stadium. Frisk had 116 yards rushing on 25 carries and two five-yard touchdown runs in the third quarter, helping the Bluebirds erase a 14-0 deficit.

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"The workouts in the offseason then the summer two-a-days which they don’t even do anymore," Frisk said. "That’s what got us through the Bell County game. It was an overall determination from the entire team. There was no way we were going to fall short again."

Sauer completed 7-of-12 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown. Sauer found Stegman for a 69-yard touchdown reception with 45 seconds left in the first half to trim the margin to 14-7 Hopkinsville.

Highlands knew it had to contain Hopkinsville's dynamic rushing duo of Travis Hampton and Artose Pinner. Hampton, who later played at Murray State, finished with 106 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns and Pinner, who played at the University of Kentucky with Smith and Lorenzen, had 63 yards rushing on 12 carries.

Highlands won the turnover battle, 3-1. Junior Nathan Lindeman had a fumble recovery and junior defensive back Mike Schneider had an interception for the Bluebirds.

The squad had 20 seniors on it. The other seniors were Will Chambers (wide receiver, defensive back), Jason Arnold (tight end, defensive end), Brent Bertke (offensive guard, inside linebacker), Brandon Bush (offensive guard, defensive tackle), Jason Pratt (center, defensive end), Carl Short (offensive guard, defensive tackle), Johnny Black (tackle on both sides), Doug Hoffman (tackle on both sides), Dave Schulkers (wide receiver, outside linebacker), Dan Schulkers (wide receiver, defensive back) and Tim Rehrmann (tight end, defensive end). 

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