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The Highlands Bluebirds did not get a chance to defend its 5A state championship due to the state of Kentucky realigning its football classifications. However, the Birds were able to run the table going 15-0 and winning the 4A crown in its fifth consecutive championship and the 21st in program history.
Highlands was so dominate that many times the starters did not even play in the second half of games during the regular season. This gave head coach Dale Mueller a chance to give second-string player valuable varsity reps and give the team plenty of depth while making the championship run.
The offense scored an amazing 849 points, averaging 56.6 per game. Conversely, the stingy defense led surrendered just 12.7 points per contest and recorded four shutouts.
Here is a game-by-game recap of Highlands’s 2011 season:
GAME #1 – HIGHLANDS 35, BOYLE COUNTY 14 : Highlands began the season on the road in what many prognosticators felt was a preview of the 4A state championship matchup against the defending champion Boyle County Rebels. With the score tied 7-7 in the second quarter, Highlands’ defensive back Carter New returned an interception 86 yards for a touchdown to give the Birds the lead and sucking the momentum out of the crowd that had gathered in the Danville for the matchup of heavyweight programs. The pick-six was one of two interceptions for New in the game. Quarterback Patrick Towles led the way with 201 yards passing and 79 yards rushing. Running backs Zach Harris and Jake True added to the ground attack with 62 and 60 yards respectively. The opening week win for Highlands snapped Boyle County’s 30-game winning streak.
GAME #2 – HIGHLANDS 61, DIXIE HEIGHTS 13 : Highlands had 12 days to prepare for a special Thursday night television game at home against Dixie Heights in a matchup of a pair of future Division-I signal-callers. Towles, a UK commit, and the Bluebirds came away as the undisputed winner with a 61-13 blowout win over Zeke Pike (Auburn recruit) and the Colonels. Towles threw for 407 passing yards with three touchdowns and scored two rushing touchdowns in just over two quarters of play. He completed passes to eight different receivers with Austin Sheehan leading the way with four catches for 161 yards and a touchdown. The Highlands’ offense racked up 707 yards of total offense including 152 passing yards from backup quarterback Drew Houliston. The Birds defense held Pike to 13-for-25 passing for just 109 yards. New intercepted two passes to give him four picks on the season and 10 for his career up to that point. Drake Bruns provided special teams’ score with a third-quarter punt return.
GAME #3 – HIGHLANDS 56, LOUISVILLE WESTERN 0 : Highlands invited Louisville Western to Fort Thomas and the Bluebirds were not a gracious host as they routed the Warriors 56-0. True scored three first-quarter touchdowns on his way to 102 yards rushing on just seven carries. Towles completed just nine passes in 17 attempts, but did throw for three touchdowns and 304 yards. Sheehan caught a 68-yard touchdown followed by an 83-yarder to the house as he accounted for 151 yards through the air on just two catches. The Birds defense was very impressive as it forced a total of seven turnovers. Drake Bruns and Blake Schutte led the way as each had an interception and a fumble recovery.
GAME #4 – HIGHLANDS 71, MASON COUNTY 8 : The Bluebirds continued to steamroll through the early season competition with a 71-8 road win at Mason County. Towles threw five touchdowns to five different receivers as he went 13-for-17 and 255 yards passing. Jac Collinsworth, who caught one of those scoring strikes, led the team with five receptions. Donovan McCoy caught one touchdown and threw for a second during mop-up duty as the backup quarterback. In the second half, backup running back Jaylen Hayes scored three rushing touchdowns on his only three carries of the game. On defense, Josh Quillen recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
GAME #5 – HIGHLANDS 42, COVINGTON CATHOLIC 37 : After three consecutive blowouts the Bluebirds’ coaching staff knew that they would have to count on their starters to play all four quarters in its district opener while facing its biggest rival on the road at Covington Catholic. The high-powered Colonels’ offense matched up favorably against the stingy Highlands’ defense. The key of the game would be if Cov Cath’s defense could stop Towles and Birds’ offense. The fans at Wooten Field were treated to classic contest that came down to a fourth-down stop in the red zone by the Highlands’ defense in the game’s waning moments. With the score tied 7-7 in the first quarter, it looked like the Birds were about to pull away from the Colonels. Towles connected with Sheehan on an 80-yard touchdown reception followed by a Towles 14-yard scoring run to take a 21-7 lead. The teams traded touchdowns in second quarter to give Highlands the 28-14 halftime advantage. After Cov Cath scored a third-quarter touchdown to slice the Highlands lead to 28-21, the Colonels defense took advantage of a rare Highlands’ mistake. CovCath recovered an errant shotgun snap on the Birds’ two-yard line. With four chances to gain two yards for the potential tying score, the Highlands’ defense bowed up and forced the Colonels to kick a field goal and hold on to a 28-24 lead. Towles, who passed for 208 yards on 8-for-14 passing, completed a 43-yard pass to Collingsworth setting up Colin Seidl’s three-yard touchdown run. CovCath once again cut into the Highlands lead with a fourth-quarter touchdown and the Birds’ lead was only 35-31. Towles, who rushed for over 100 yards, extended the lead to 42-31 with his third rushing touchdown, this one from 46 yards. The Colonels scored a touchdown with 6:43 left in the game to make the score 42-37. Highlands tried to ice the game at this point, but the Cov Cath defense came up with a big play by recovering a fumble with four minutes left in the game. The Colonels’ offense made it down to the Highlands 17-yard line where it faced fourth-and nine with less than a minute to play in the game. The potential winning pass play fell incomplete in the end zone and the Bluebirds escaped Park Hills with a 42-37 victory.
GAME #6 – HIGHLANDS 68, HARRISON COUNTY 0 : The Birds played host to a new district opponent, Harrison County, and completing dismantled the visiting Thoroughbreds 68-0. Highlands set the tone for the game on the very first play from scrimmage when Towles threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Collinsworth. Towles threw for 336 yards and five touchdowns on 15-for-22 passing. Ben Streeter tied a state record with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. Sheehan showed off his special teams’ skills as a punt returner. He returned seven punts for 182 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown. Seidl rushed for 100 yards on just three carries as the Bluebirds improved to 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the district.
GAME #7 – HIGHLANDS 79, PENDLETON COUNTY 0 : The destruction of the district continued with a 79-0 humiliation of Pendleton County on its home field. The Highlands’ starters were pulled from the game before halftime, but the damage was already beyond repair for the Wildcats. Towles threw seven touchdown passes, including three to McCoy. The Highlands’ defense forced four turnovers, included an interception by Schutte that was returned 45 yards for a touchdown.
GAME #8 – HIGHLANDS 77, HOLMES 0 : The Birds notched its third consecutive shutout with a 77-0 blowout of the Holmes Bulldogs. In the three district games that excluded Covington Catholic, Highlands combined to win the three games 224-0. Towles played a near perfect game before being pulled at halftime. The senior was 14-for-15 passing with 361 yards and five touchdowns. Collinsworth caught three passes, all for touchdowns, for 87 yards. Sheehan chalked up 131 receiving yards while catching one touchdown and returned a punt 35 yards for a second score. Ryan Donovan also had a big game with one rushing touchdown and two touchdown receptions. The defense forced five turnovers and also produced points when Alex Frost returned a fumble 24 yards for a touchdown.
GAME #9 – HIGHLANDS 34, ELDER 29 : The Bluebirds toughest test of the regular season took place across the Ohio River on the Westside of Cincinnati at The Pit against the Elder Panthers. Highlands had never beaten Elder and was looking for their first-ever win against the Panthers. It became a bigger challenge for Highlands when Towles was knocked out of the game with a concussion on the team’s first offensive series. This pressed Donovan McCoy into duty as the quarterback. McCoy, who last season was the junior varsity starter and varsity backup quarterback as a sophomore, had been a starting wide receiver this year as a junior. He is projected to next year’s starting quarterback and made a great showing for himself leading the Birds to a 34-29 win. Towles was knocked out of the game at the end of a four-yard touchdown run that gave Highlands a 7-0 lead. Elder was playing without 13 seniors that were suspended for the game. The Panthers tied the score 7-7 when its backup quarterback Josh Moore threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Max Mazza. Elder built a 17-7 lead when McCoy was finally able to get the offense clicking. McCoy scored on a nine-yard rushing touchdown that was set-up by a 53-yard catch by Sheehan. Sheehan, who caught seven passes for 192 yards, scored on a five-yard reception just before halftime to give Highlands a 21-17 lead at the intermission. After each team traded field goals in the third quarter, Elder re-took the lead when Stephen Robben recovered a Highlands’ fumble in its own end zone for a touchdown. The costly Highlands mistake gave the Panthers a 27-24 lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter. New drilled a 26-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to tie the game 27-27. The Highlands’ defense stiffened and held Elder to a three-and-out on the ensuing possession. When the Birds got the ball back, McCoy connected on a 58-yard touchdown pass with David Christian to put Highlands in the front for good. Elder’s defense would score a safety if 5:42 left in the game but that was as close as the Panthers would get as Highlands notched the historic win by a score of 34-29.
GAME #10 – HIGHLANDS 63, RYLE 14 : Highlands wrapped up a perfect 10-0 regular season with a 61-14 victory at home against the Ryle Raiders. It was Senior Night and Towles, successfully recovering for the previous week’s concussion, had another great game. The senior threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns. Highlands had a 28-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Sheehan caught a touchdown pass that was sandwiched around a pair of Ian McGurn scoring catches on the first three series. The defense forced two first quarter turnovers including an 95-yard interception return by Quillen. The score ballooned to 49-0 at halftime. Ryle did not score until its final two possessions as Highlands went on to finish the regular season with a 63-14 win and a 10-0 record.
GAME #11 – HIGHLANDS 63, BOYD COUNTY 7 : The Bluebirds continued its onslaught of the overmatched opposition with a 63-7 win over Boyd County in the first round of the playoffs. Towles only played one quarter and racked up four touchdown passes. Harris scored one touchdown on the ground and a 52-yarder through the air via backup quarterback Donovan McCoy. Streeter returned an interception 47 yards for yet another touchdown. The victory was the 21st consecutive post season victory for the Bluebirds.
GAME #12 – HIGHLANDS 67, JOHNSON CENTRAL 20 : Highlands met up once again in the playoffs with Johnson Central and the Birds came away with a blowout 67-20 win. The Birds used the passing game to setup short rushing touchdowns as Patrick Towles threw for over 400 yards, but it was True that found the end zone five times on 10 carries. Seidl also scored two touchdowns as the offense rolled in front of the home crowd. The Birds’ defense was equally impressive as it held J.J. Jude, the state’s all-time career leading rusher, to just 94 yards on the ground. Highlands also had the luxury of winning the game without starters Sheehan and New, who sat out the game with injuries.
GAME #13 – HIGHLANDS 49, COVINGTON CATHOLIC 14 : Next up for Highlands was a rematch against Covington Catholic for the regional championship game. This time around the game was played in Fort Thomas and the Birds took advantage of the friendly surroundings. After giving up a season-high 37 points in the regular season meeting, the Highlands’ defense was looking to make a statement. Cov Cath quarterback Blake Bir was held to just 110 yard passing and just two touchdowns. Towles rushed for 106 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the first half. After leading 21-7 at halftime, Highlands surrendered a touchdown on the Colonels’ first drive of the third quarter to make it a 21-14 game. That’s when the Birds took over and scored four unanswered touchdowns to win the regional crown. It was Highlands 38th consecutive home victory as Towles threw for 242 yards and one touchdown on 11-for-23 passing. True carried the ball 16 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns and Seidl added a 27-yard touchdown run.
GAME #14 – HIGHLANDS 42, LEXINGTON CATHOLIC 21 : Most of the so-called experts felt that the state semi-final game in 4A would be a rematch between Highlands and Boyle County. However, Lexington Catholic crashed the party and earned the right to host the game by defeating Boyle County in its regional championship game. It did not matter to Highlands as the Birds traveled to Lexington and defeated the Knights for the right to play in the state championship game. The 42 points scored in the game gave Highlands 807 points on the season to break its own record set back in 1998. Colin Seidl set the tone for the game by taking the opening kickoff of the game 95 yards to the house for a touchdown. It was the first of two kickoff return scores for Seidl as he took another one back 90 yards in the second half. True scored his 15th rushing touchdown of the season as the Birds led 21-7 at halftime. Towles rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns while passing for 108 yards and one score through the air.
GAME #15 – HIGHLANDS 42, FRANKLIN-SIMPSON 14 : “The Drive for Five” pulled up to Western Kentucky University and Highlands defeated Franklin-Simpson 42-14 to successfully finalize the journey. With the score tied 7-7 in the first quarter, Harris found the end zone for the second time in the game with a three-yard run to culminated a nine-play 95-yard drive. Franklin-Simpson appeared to be ready to tie the score when Kenton Noran forced a fumble and Chad Bowen recovered it for Highlands at the one-yard line. The Birds made the Wildcats pay as they drove the ball 99 yards for a touchdown. Towles threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Donovan McCoy to give Highlands a 21-7 lead. That momentum swing turned out to be the difference in the game. Harris would score his third rushing touchdown of the game at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter and the Birds had a 28-7 lead. On the ensuing possession, Franklin-Simpson scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 28-14 but that was a close as the Wildcats would get in this game. Fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns by True and Towles put the finishing touches on the Bluebirds 21st state championship victory, tying the Fort Thomas school with Louisville Trinity for the most football titles in the history of the state of Kentucky. The five consecutive titles also ties a state record set by Boyle County from 1999-2003. Towles led the way for the Birds with 183 yards passing and 122 yards rushing. Harris chipped in 90 yards rushing to go with his three touchdowns. McCoy was the top receiver with four receptions and 69 yards. Bowden was credited with eight tackles and Quillen had three tackles-for-loss. The Highlands offense outgained Franklin-Simpson 507-279.
MILESTONES AND MORE :
--The Highlands football program continues to be tied with Louisville Trinity for most state championship at 21. By winning its fifth consecutive state title, the Birds tie a state record set by Boyle County from 1999-2003. The championship was the 12th for head coach Dale Mueller since he took over at Highlands in 1994.
--Highlands set state records most points (849), touchdowns (119) and total offensive yards (7,517) in a season.
--Towles won the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year award and the Kentucky Mr. Football award. Towles became the fourth Northern Kentucky Player to win the Mr. Football honor since its inception in 1986. Previous area winners include Frank Jacobs (Newport Central Catholic, 1986), Shawn Alexander (Boone County, 1994) and Jared Lorenzen (Highlands, 1998).
--Towles led the offense in both passing and rushing. He passed for 3,820 yards with 42 touchdowns and just one interception. Towles also rushed for 589 yards (5.9 avg.) and 15 rushing touchdowns. The University of Kentucky recruit concludes his career with 7,428 yards and 73 yards passing. Towles career rushing totals calculated to 1,718 yards and 38 touchdowns.
--Besides Towles, three other Highlands players earned First-Team All-State honors including Sheehan, senior defensive linemen Devin Bruns and senior defensive back Drake Bruns.
--True ran for 571 yards and a team-high 16 rushing touchdowns. That brings his career total to 27 touchdowns on the ground.
--Six players caught at least 20 passes during the course of the season and 13 different players caught touchdown passes.
--McCoy led the team with 36 receptions and Sheehan was tops with 1,013 yards and Sheehan was tied with Christian with 8 touchdown receptions.
--New led the team with six interceptions, one of which that was returned for a touchdown. That brings New’s career total to 12 interceptions.
--The Highlands’ defense held opponents to 12.7 points per game while forcing 42 turnovers (25 interceptions and 17 fumbles) and scoring 8 defensive touchdowns.
Brady Laber is a 2009 graduate of Northern Kentucky University. He is in his second season with TriStateFootball.com and has covered Northern Kentucky high school football since 2006. If you are interested in covering your team, please CONTACT US.