Sunday, December 05, 1999

Highlands wants to be national champs


Bluebirds cruise to another Kentucky title

BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — It's time to dream new dreams. For a Highlands football team approaching dynasty status, state titles may soon no longer satisfy.

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(Ernest Coleman photos)
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Frank Benton and Brennan Jones.
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Benton stops Owensboro QB.
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Bluebirds embrace the trophy.
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Gino Guidugli scores.
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Adam Johnston INT.
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Players celebrate.
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        After its 48-10 beating of Ow ensboro in the Class AAA championship game Saturday at old Cardinal Stadium, Highlands can count three state championships in four years. It has gone 55-3 in that span, the only in-state loss coming in double-overtime to Covington Catholic in the 1997 playoffs.

        Having earned national rankings in all four seasons, Highlands admits to a bigger goal for next year: a national championship.

        “Fox Sports Net is putting together that winner-take-all bowl game next year for the top two teams in the country,” Highlands coach Dale Mueller said. “That's our goal, to get there.”

        It's probably a pipe dream. Last year, Highlands had arguably the finest football team in Kentucky history — setting six state records, scoring 801 points, winning by an average of 40 points per game — but ranked only 19th in USA Today's poll. Teams from traditional football states such as Ohio, Texas and California will likely always rank higher.

        Yet Highlands (14-1) will graduate just eight seniors, five of whom start. This is a team top-heavy with star juniors, five of whom will be third-year starters next season.

        The Bluebirds will have returning starters at 16 of 22 spots, 15 of them seniors-to-be. Three of them — defensive back Brett Hamblen, linebacker Brent Grover and defensive end Ben Scott — are first team all-state honorees. Don't forget quarterback Gino Guidugli, an honorable mention all-stater, whose 3,030 passing yards and 39 TDs this fall make him a front-runner for Mr. Football 2000.

        “We're going to be amazing next year,” Scott said. “Nothing is going to stop us.”

        The more modest goal next fall is a third straight title, something done only three times in Kentucky history and never in AAA. The record for consecutive titles is Beechwood's four straight from 1991-94.

        “We always have a goal of winning state,” Guidugli said. “We're going to make sure we work hard enough to do it.”

        Last year's Highlands superteam, led by Mr. Football winner Jared Lorenzen and runner-up Derek Smith, graduated a slew of seniors. Few fans figured a repeat possible.

        Yet here was Highlands, finishing its season Saturday with 730 points — the third-highest total in state history — and an average scoring margin of plus-31.5 points.

        “Let's face it: That's the best team in the state of Kentucky, if not the Ohio Valley region,” Owensboro coach Gordon Powers said.

        Said Scott: “I think we have more talent than last year. It was just a matter of us coming together.”

        Saturday, Hamblen returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, and Highlands raced to a 21-7 lead.

        Up 21-10 with seven seconds left in the first half, Highlands survived a scare. Owensboro, at the Highlands 2, sent star rusher Getty Cavitt up the middle, and the Bluebirds stuffed him to end the half.

        In the second half, Highlands' defense took over, forcing four turnovers. Seniors Jess Meloche and Adam Johnston returned two of those for TDs.

        “This season was so special, because this team really wasn't a great team early on,” Mueller said. “The guys grew together.”

        Next year... well, wait and see.

        “They're going to be among the top five (teams) in the nation,” Johnston said. “I can't wait to see them. I'll come back for every game.”

        Highlands ....... 21  0  20  7—48

        Owensboro ....... 7  3   0  0—10

        H—Hamblen 91 kickoff return (Jones kick)

        H—Guidugli 1 run (Jones kick)

        O—Cavitt 2 run (L. Johnson kick)

        H—Grover 41 pass from Guidugli (Jones kick)

        O—L. Johnson 37 FG

        H—Meloche 9 fumble recovery (run failed)

        H—Guidugli 2 run (Jones kick)

        H—Johnston 33 interception return (Jones kick)

        H—Meloche 1 run (Jones kick)

        Records: Highlands 14-1, Owensboro 13-2.

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