BY RAY SCHAEFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In 117 of Kentucky's 120 counties, high school basketball is the glory game, but in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, football is first.
Highlands players celebrate the school's 13th title last year.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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The Class A through AAAA championships are decided the first week in December in Louisville, but seeing the trophies has largely required a trip to Northern Kentucky. Nine schools - Highlands, Beechwood, Covington Catholic, Bellevue, Lloyd, Dayton, Ludlow, Newport Central Catholic and Conner - have captured a combined 33 state championships since the Kentucky playoff system started in 1959. Local teams finished second 17 times.
Ask the 18 coaches why Northern Kentucky football has been so good for so long, and you may get 18 different answers.
The 33 Kentucky high school football titles won by Northern Kentucky teams and number of times they've been runner-up:|
Highlands (13) - 1960-61, '64, '68, '70 (Class AA); '75, '77, '81-'82, '89, '92, '96, '98 (Class AAA). Runner-up: four times.
Beechwood (7) - 1984, '91-94, '96-'97 (Class A). Runner-up: twice.
Covington Catholic (5) - 1987-'88, '93-'94, '97 (Class AAA).
Bellevue (2) - 1977, '79 (Class A). Runner-up: four times.
Lloyd (2) - 1965 (Class A), '76 (Class AAA).
Newport Central Catholic (1) - 1984 (Class AA). Runner-up: twice.
Conner (1) - 1983 (Class AAA). Runner-up: once.
Ludlow (1) - 1975 (Class A).
Dayton (1) - 1966 (Class A).
Boone County hasn't won a state title but has been runner-up four times.
Source: Kentucky High
School Athletic Association.
Newport Central Catholic coach Bob Schneider said not having to drive more than 30 minutes to any other school is the reason.
"It's a matter of survival," Schneider said. "There's so many quality programs. It's a great football area."
Legendary former Boone County coach Owen Hauck said it's because players pretty much know what they're doing when they reach high school.
"Coaching's very good up here," Hauck said. "Most teams have good feeder systems, good little league systems. Those things have come together."
Highlands coach Dale Mueller said it's the winning tradition so many teams have.
"I don't think the tradition necessarily helps us on Friday nights, but it helps us in the middle of two-a-day (practices), in the middle of winter when guys don't really feel like running until they're exhausted."
To CovCath coach Lynn Ray, it's geography.
Beechwood coach Mike Yeagle gets the champion's treatment after the school's seventh title in 1997.
Ernest Coleman photo)
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"I think, No. 1, Greater Cincinnati has been a hotbed of Division I and college recruiting," Ray said. "High school football has always been important. You can get to a lot of college games. Plus, you have the Bengals."
Come playoff time, teams help each other. They stonewall coaches from outside the area who ask for game videos from anyone other than the upcoming opponent. And six years ago, Beechwood lent its shoes to CovCath before its win over Bell County in the AAA semifinals because they had better traction on the muddy field.
Opposing coaches respect Northern Kentucky's success. Dudley Hilton owns a 9-8 overall record over local teams - but just 4-7 against Highlands and CovCath - in stints at Bell County and Bourbon County.
"They've made me a better coach, and they made our teams better," Hilton said. "I paid the price. I've been fortunate to beat them a few times."
Covington Catholic players hoist the school's fifth state championship trophy in 1997.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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Much of Northern Kentucky's football success can be attributed to three men: former University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Bengals coach Homer Rice, who led Highlands from 1954-61, and assistants Hauck and Mike Murphy, now an assistant at Boone County.
Rice, Hauck and Murphy brought to the high school game something they saw at colleges: year-round training.
"I did a lot of traveling to clinics to find out how other people did things," said Rice, who will be honored Saturday at Highlands during the Champions Bowl. "I just got the idea the boys ought to spend one hour on their body; that's why we called it the 60-Minute Club.
"It wasn't heavy lifting. It was light (weights) with lots of repetitions and done quickly. They learned to run; we had great conditioning."
There were other traditions: Highlands players had to get burr haircuts in August, and they had to ride bicycles and stay out of cars during the season.
"It was just a thing of discipline," Rice said. "They became very disciplined. Once they left the program, they knew they could do anything."
Hauck ranks fifth in state history with 258 football wins. (He also has 26 in Ohio with Mount Healthy.) He didn't win a state title, but Beechwood coach Mike Yeagle said that doesn't matter.
"The man did nothing but win," Yeagle said. "He played old-fashioned football the way you're supposed to play. He stopped people on defense and he lined up and ran the ball on offense."
To gain an advantage, area coaches sometimes take scouting trips, which are hardly glamorous but sometimes provide as many stories as the games.
Ray remembers a trip he took to Bell County, in the Appalachian Mountains, during the 1989 season. He and assistants Bob Noll and Mark Goetz took a plane to Pineville and back - the only things that went as planned.
A taxi driver who was supposed to take them to the airport after the game didn't show up, so the three went to a school dance and asked the high school principal for a ride.
"We rode (in) a police cruiser to the county courthouse," Ray said. "The county dispatcher found us an ambulance. They charged us $60; they took the wrong way to the airport. We could have driven back faster."
Highlands won Northern Kentucky's first state football title in 1960 with a 21-13 victory over Lexington Lafayette. But Rice said the Bluebirds should have beaten Henderson the year before, but quarterback Roger Walz was ejected from the game.
"A player came down and knocked (Walz) down and held him down," Rice said. "(Walz) was trying to get up and the referee threw them both out. We didn't have a quarterback."
The Bluebirds also won Class AA titles in 1961, '64, '68 and '70 and Class AAA titles in '75, '77, '81, '82, '89, '92, '96 and '98.
Lloyd needed every inch of offense to take the 1965 Class A title, a 25-7 victory over Bardstown's My Old Kentucky Home. The Juggernauts recorded 14-14 ties against Mount Sterling and Fleming-Neon in the first round and semifinals, but advanced via a tiebreaking system, which counted first downs, total yards and penetrations inside the 20-yard line.
"We weren't that big," said Richard Wilmhoff, then a senior center/linebacker and now a Lloyd assistant coach. "The biggest player that started was 185 pounds."
Three Class A schools, Bellevue, Lloyd and Ludlow, have won a combined four titles in the 1970s.
Ludlow's Jim Lokesak made life miserable for the Panthers' foes. His six-yard touchdown and extra point were enough for a 7-6 title win over Heath in '75.
"It was probably the finest group of individuals I could have played with," Lokesak said of his teammates.
Lloyd won in '76 with defense. The Juggernauts allowed just 81 points all year and just six in wins over Whitley County (48-0), Belfry (28-6) and Shelby County (24-0).
"They were fun to coach," said Lloyd coach Rudy Tassini, then defensive coordinator under the late Jim "Red Dog" Dougherty. "They were small, but they loved the game. They hit hard."
Bellevue won state titles in '77 and '79.
Northern Kentucky teams won eight titles in the '80s, including two by Covington Catholic.
CovCath was an unknown team and twice a heavy underdog against Paducah Tilghman in Class AAA finals, yet the Colonels pulled off a 16-6 win in '87 and a 24-21 victory in double OT in '88.
"Everybody thought Paducah Tilghman had the glamour players," Ray said.
Area football teams won 12 state championships in the '90s, highlighted by Beechwood becoming Kentucky's first school to win four straight (1991-94), and Highlands' state-record 13th championship last year.
Today's players hope to carry on the tradition. Players like Highlands juniors Ben Dunham-Freer, Brent Grover and Chris Schneider have fathers won titles in 1968 and '70.
Said Schnzider: "It gives you a little pride."