|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior running back Jared Pulsfort (91) scores against Covington Catholic in a junior varsity game last year. Pulsfort could earn some carries this season.|
It often happens after teams win that first state championship. But for this program, after the first title in 1960, another followed in 1961 and it would not be the last one in a while. More of them came and 55 years after that first one, the Highlands Bluebirds football team has built a dynasty.
Highlands and Louisville Trinity have a state-record 23 championships. The Bluebirds own a record of 868-229-26 in 100 seasons good for the second-most wins in program history in the country behind the 891-216-34 mark of Valdosta High in southern Georgia. Highlands and Valdosta are two of just eight teams in the country with 805 or more wins in program history.
Highlands added a 23rd state championship in December. The Bluebirds finished 13-2 and rallied from 21 down in the first half to beat the Owensboro Red Devils, 49-42 in the Class 4A title game.
One thing continues to motivate the Bluebird coaches and players year-in and year-out. That's the fact the current team has not accomplished any of that.
"In reality, the tradition stuff is fun to talk about outside (the practice and playing fields)," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands second-year Head Coach. "When you're in practice, you don't even think about that. It's these guys senior years. Last year wasn't their senior year. That's all they should be worried about and that's all we're worried about."
Highlands moves up from 4A back to 5A after being in that class from 2007 to 2010 when Kentucky expanded from four to six classes. The Bluebirds won those five 5A titles almost by an average of 30 points before winning 4A three times. Highlands has appeared in eight straight state championship games and won seven of them.
The Bluebirds will still battle arch-rival Covington Catholic in District 5 action along with Dixie Heights and Grant County. They will battle teams from around Lexington in at least the first round of the playoffs in Montgomery County, Woodford County, Madison Southern or Anderson County as opposed to teams from eastern Kentucky like previous years.
But Weinrich said not much will change moving up a class. The Bluebirds will still wear teams out with their depth. Highlands has 96 sophomores, juniors and seniors on the roster. There are at least 32 teams in each class.
"It's not like we're going from Division VI in Ohio to Division I (largest class)," Weinrich said. "Even if we were Class A and we had so many people, it's going to be the same caliber of teams. Our numbers are going to put us in situations we can compete against schools that have the same kind of numbers."
Highlands graduated 26 seniors from last year's team including their leading passer, rusher and receiver in Beau Hoge, Griffin Urlage and Alex Vemenan respectively. Hoge took his talents to Brigham Young University and Veneman is attending Western Kentucky Uniersity. The Bluebirds also graduated running backs James Grau, Josh Watson and wide receivers Justin Weyer and Cashel Coughlan.
But the Bluebirds return several offensive linemen with experience in seniors Bo Hebel, Carson Haas, Nathan Raleigh, Evan Richardson and junior Kyle Finfrock. Juniors Michael Davidson, Trey King and Mitchell Schry could also make an impact there. Highlands graduated Matt Gall, Lou Bunning and Manny Venegas from last year's offensive line.
"Everything starts there. It's an old cliche that is 100 percent true," Weinrich said. "It helps to have guys returning. Last year, there were guys there that were new at the position. All the guys were doing different stuff. So to have guys return that were pretty good and are only getting better is huge to the offense. As the O-line goes, the whole team goes."
Highlands only returned one offensive lineman with significant varsity experience last year in Kyler Dalton. But injuries limited his contributions. Hebel had moved over from the defensive line.
"Mainly we have to improve on the smaller things because it was something we didn't do too well last year, but it was obviously good enough," Raleigh said. "But there's always room for improvement on everything we do. You have to make sure you have good form. You can't think about it. You just have to do it."
Senior Austin Hergott will start at quarterback. He struggled last year backing up Hoge after showing signs of brilliance as a sophomore. But his offseason improvement showed in form of committing to play for NCAA Division I Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference.
The leading returning rusher from last year is senior Nick Kendall. Kendall ran for 684 yards on 99 carries and six touchdowns last year. Juniors Grant Murray, Ben Brach and Jared Pulsfort could also have carries along with Hergott.
"We're doing a lot of interior (running) so we're working with the linemen so we know how they're going to react and what the defense is doing," Pulsfort said. "We're developing a connection with them. It's all natural reactions on how I cut."
Hergott will have a lot of nice wide receivers to throw the ball. Senior Mitch Cain is the leading returning receiver with 28 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns last year along with seniors Chandler New and Eric Miller. New had 16 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns with Miller hauling in 14 for 273 yards and three scores. Seniors Tanner Groneck, Ryan Conley, Austin Horner, T.J. Sipple and juniors Trey Bowden, Trent Buchert, Chuckie Buckler, Dougie Buckler, Evan Fickenscher, Bradley Greene and Bruce Seidel could also contribute there. Greene saw some action at defensive back last year because of injuries.
"The routes are looking very good," Groneck said. "The main focus for us this year is making sure we get the fundamentals down of the routes and running them nice and hard. It's really about a connection with the quarterback too. That's why we try to run as many routes a day as we can. It's working out really well. (Austin Hergott) has definitely stepped up the last couple weeks."
The Bluebirds averaged just more than 40 points per game. That was down compared to averaging in the 50s in previous years. But Highlands still showed its usual balance averaging just more than 200 yards on the ground and about 237 through the air per game.
Highlands scrimmages Cincinnati St. Xavier on Aug. 14 in Fort Thomas. The Bluebirds then travel to Union to face the Cooper Jaguars, a 5A semifinalist last year, on Aug. 21. Game time is 7:30 p.m.