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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Highlands Football, Track and Field Senior Hit Full Potential in Spring

Welch Hopes for Monster Year in Both Sports

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior wide receiver Jake Welch makes a move against Boone County last season. He is one of a number of wide receivers returning this year.

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Fans of the Highlands Bluebirds football team saw Jake Welch's potential in a scrimmage against Louisville Ballard his sophomore season in 2019.

Welch took a pass from quarterback Collin Hollingsworth and took it about 90 yards for a touchdown. But that full potential did not come to full fruition until this past spring for the senior.

Welch scored in four events at the Class 2A state track and field meet winning the 400 meter dash in 49.67 seconds. Welch also took fifth in the 200 in 22.67 seconds and seventh in the 100 in 11.19 scoring 16 points individually.

"It was something I'd been working toward my whole life," Welch said. "When you're in those hard days and it's super hot out in the summer and the spring, you don't want to do an extra rep. That's what you think of is winning state. It helps you push."

Highlands had a chance to bring home a state championship in the final event. Welch helped the Bluebirds finish second in the mile relay in a school record time of three minutes, 25.49 seconds behind North Oldham. But the Bluebirds fell just short with 75 points. Mercer County won it with 78.5.

Ryan Leopold just finished his eighth season as head coach of the Highlands boys track and field team. He'd been an assistant the previous five years. Leopold returns as an assistant football coach working with the safeties this fall.

"He's the hardest worker on the team,"
Leopold said of Welch. "He is the leader also. He leads by example and he practices as hard as he can every day. It show on the field that he bought into what we do. We want to go fast and that's his goal every day working on the fundamentals and being as clean as he can. It shows on the track and it shows on the football field right now how easy everything comes to him."

Welch scored 26 points individually in the Class 2A, Region 4 meet at Bourbon County. He won the 400 and 200 and finished third in the 100. Welch also helped the mile relay team capture gold in the race. The Bluebirds dominated the region with 168 points. Runner-up Western Hills scored 76.

"It was just pure focus. It was remaining calm and knowing that you've trained for this and it's your time to shine," Welch said. "It was a sense of relief that what I've worked for finally paid off."

Highlands head football coach Bob Sphire said he's very supportive of multi-sport athletes. He noted some returning football players scored a lot of points at the state track and field meet. Senior Isaac Surrey and junior Aiden Nevels at wide receiver/defensive back scored also scored points in the state meet at the University of Kentucky.

Senior Oliver Harris started on the state championship boys basketball team this past year. Juniors Charlie Noon, Sam Robinson, Adam Dunn and sophomore Brody Benke also dressed for the team seeing some action.

"We all have to work together as coaches, as programs," Sphire said. "It was really good my first spring to see that relationship be built where we can work together like that and then to see the success the kids are having. I think them having that kind of success carries over to our program. They're better competitors, stronger leaders. They trust their abilities. They've been in those settings where the big moments don't overwhelm them."

Welch is hoping to have an injury-free senior football season. As a sophomore, Welch had two touchdown catches for a total of 38 yards in a 47-0 win over Campbell County. But he finished with just five catches for 93 yards and three touchdowns after missing part of the season because of injuries. Highlands finished 6-5 that season losing 38-28 at Conner in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.

Welch finished with a team-high 251 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns last season in a season shortened by Coronavirus 2019. Highlands finished 5-6 losing 38-21 in the second round of the playoffs at Covington Catholic. But he still missed a couple games because of injuries.

"I hope to help the team putting my skill sets to use," Welch said. "I want to help spread the field. We have a whole new attitude this season and we're going to be a lot better this year."

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Welch said the Bluebirds hope to see improvements in the passing game with the return of Noon at quarterback in addition to the return of a number of wide receivers that saw varsity action last year including juniors Brennan Kelsay and Ryan DeBurger. Highlands had 1,032 yards passing last year for an average of just below 94 per game.

"We were still working out our relationship as quarterback, wide receiver," Welch said. "Both positions have matured greatly. We're finally clicking on all cylinders."

The 17-year-old Welch is 5-feet-9-inches and 155 pounds and ran a 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds. Welch said he is trying to perfect his release off the line of scrimmage and utilize his speed to make hard, aggressive cuts.

The Highlands wide receivers have had issues creating separation against solid defensive backs in recent years, especially in the seven-game losing streak against arch-rival Covington Catholic. But the tide there began to turn some last year.

"It's not letting them get their hands on you," Welch said. "That way you can use your feet to throw them off. It's a lot of fakes so he can't hold you at the line of scrimmage."

Sphire came to Highlands this spring after spending four seasons as head coach at Camden County located in southeast Georgia. Sphire helped the Lexington Catholic Knights to their first state championship in 2005 before heading south to North Gwinnett.

"It's brought a culture change. We're all super excited to get to work," Welch said of the coaching staff. "We're trying to create a sense of brotherhood we feel has not been 100 percent there the past couple years. We want to create a sense of family in the locker room that will go out and fight for one another."

Sphire said Welch will bring a different skill set at wide receiver compared to Harris. Sphire said Welch will be able to run under deep balls while Harris will be able to jump up and catch the ball against defensive backs. There is a lot of technical teaching that comes with running various routes.

"He can take the top off coverages right away. He can run the vertical routes," Sphire said of Welch. "He can run the deep post. He can do those things. But he still has a long way to go to learn the offense. But that will all come. He's football smart. He's athletic."

Leopold said Welch has also been practicing with the defensive backs. In the spring, Sphire said the Bluebirds do not have the roster size to two-platoon like the team has done in the past. 

Welch is also excited about the track and field prospects in the spring. The Bluebirds will return a number of runners and field event players this spring. He has not forgotten Highlands only scored five points in the state meet his sophomore year in 2019.

"It was a complete transformation from what it was two years ago," Welch said. "We've gotten a lot of people to come out and run track, which is great. It helps you get faster. Our group of guys coming back are really hard workers. We know we'll push toward that state title."

Highlands opens the season Aug. 21 at Western Kentucky University against the defending state champion Bowling Green Purples. Game time is 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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