By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
This offseason for the Highlands Bluebirds football team will be about more than the usual.
The Bluebirds focused on improving their overall speed and strength as defending state champions the past six years. But they enter this offseason preparing to not only bring back the gold to Fort Thomas, but to also embrace some changes.
The Bluebirds lost 37-34 to Collins in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Western Kentucky University. They then learned Monday that longtime head football coach Dale Mueller is retiring.
“The one idea that’s been engrained in our heads is taking it one day at a time and go on to the next day,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “I think the guys that are coming back already have that look that they’re ready to get going. It was almost like they were disappointed that we’re not doing something. They can’t wait to get back at it in January.”
Wide receiver Jensen Feggins is one of the returning players. The junior led the Bluebirds with 51 catches for 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns. Classmate Alex Veneman finished second with 35 for 890 yards and 11 scores. The Bluebirds averaged 50.6 points per game.
“No matter what, our goal is to win a state championship,” Feggins said. “This year, we felt like something was taken away from us. We’re extra hungry to win this next state championship.”
Next season will mark the 100th in school history. Highlands ranks second in the country in all-time wins with a record of 855-227-26 since the program started in 1915.
“We won’t try to think of it that way,” Feggins said. “We’ll try to think of it as season one. It’s the beginning of a new era and we’re trying to start it off on a good note.”
Highlands struggled defensively against balanced teams this year. The Bluebirds allowed averages of 22.4 points per game and 323.1 yards.
“A balanced team is going to give anybody fits,” Weinrich said. “They are balanced because they are good. The biggest thing at the end of the year is we just weren’t healthy. Our guys did the best we could. We played pretty well at times. I don’t have anything to complain about. We made a lot of good plays and needed one more in the end.”
Jared Lorenzen relates to a tough loss in the playoffs. Covington Catholic edged Highlands, 41-35 in double overtime of the regional title game dubbed “The Mud Bowl” on account of horrible field conditions at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
The Bluebirds came back in 1998 to go undefeated and set the state record for most points in a season with 801. The 2011 undefeated Highlands team broke it with 849 points. Highlands beat teams by an average of 39.2 points in 1998.
That included a school record of 88 points against Campbell County. Lorenzen said that year could be a reason why the Kentucky High School Athletic Association added the running clock rule in 2001.
“The worst thing that happened to them is behind,” Lorenzen said. “We took it personally and every single time we were together as a football team, we were pissed off. We literally took that out on every single team we played. We made sure that when we got up, we were going to finish teams.”
Weinrich is the leading candidate to become the next head coach. He has been the Defensive Coordinator since 2002 after starting off as a volunteer assistant in 1995. Weinrich said he will apply for the job.
“It has been an unbelievable experience,” Weinrich said. “(Mueller is) the only head coach I've been under. I’m just so thankful he gave me a chance right out of college, which was an unbelievable experience coming back to my alma mater. We didn’t know each other at all before we met for the interview. I didn’t know it then. But I’ve been fortunate to coach for one of the best high school coaches that’s ever been on the sideline.”
Weinrich also commended Mueller for his emphasis on family. Weinrich has a daughter. People remember Mueller missing the 2012 state championship to attend his mother-in-law’s funeral. He missed the regular season win over Covington Catholic to be at his father-in-law’s funeral in 1995.
Highlands High School Principal Brian Robinson said it is still early in the process. It needs to be posted and there is no timeline to hire someone. But he and Mueller will be part of a committee that selects the successor and both commended Weinrich for his work.
“You have a school and community that supports our kids in anything we do,” Robinson said. “The entire town strives for excellence. That brings a lot of pressure and high expectations. But really strong people feel that support and put themselves in positions to where they can be successful. That’s what draws a lot of people here.”
Robinson and Mueller, still the school’s Director of Athletics, have been part of committees that have made some great hires in recent years. They hired Rob Coffey as head softball coach in the fall of 2012. Coffey guided the Bluebirds to a successful 18-12 season last year and their first appearance in the 9th Region semifinals since 2008.