BOWLING GREEN — Highlands was crowned state football champion for a record-tying 19th time Friday night, and even by the Bluebirds' lofty standards, this one was something special.
By blowing past John Hardin 35-7 in the Class 5A finals before 6,695 fans in L.T. Smith Stadium, Highlands won a third title in a row, and finished undefeated for the 12th time in school history
Coach Dale Mueller said in the pre-season that he thought his team might be in the conversation for a national title if it could go unbeaten. The Bluebirds did just that. USA Today had them rated No. 6 in the country before their impressive performance in the finals.
Mr. Football candidate Austin Collinsworth, who played safety on the 2007 title team, and receiver/safety last year, starred at running back this season.
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The son of former Bengals star and current NBC sportscaster Cris Collinsworth closed out his high school career in style, rushing 25 times for 176 yards and three TDs to lead the assault on previously unbeaten John Hardin.
Despite missing four games because of injury, Collinsworth finished the year with 1,502 yards and 23 TDs.
Collinsworth was hardly a one-man show against John Hardin.
Will Bardo provided a highlight by returning the second-half kickoff 98 yards for a score.
Sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles, grandson of baseball Hall of Famer and U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, ran the Highlands offense with aplomb despite the frigid conditions. He also had an 11-yard TD run.
The Bluebirds' offense was so efficient on the ground that it attempted (and completed) only one pass.
Highlands' swarming defense deserved to take a bow, too, blanking John Hardin through three quarters as the offense built a 35-0 lead. Austin Abner, Drake Bruns and Brandon Roller led the Bluebirds' "D."
John Hardin, in the finals for the first time in the school's nine-year history, wasted a prime scoring opportunity late in the first half.
They drove to the Highlands' 3-yard line before fumbling the ball away.
The Bulldogs finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter on a trick play — a 35-yard pass from wide receiver Matt Simmons to Jeremy Harness.
No school — not even Trinity, which goes for its 20th state title Saturday night against archrival St. Xavier — can match Highlands' sustained excellence since the playoff system began 50 years ago.
The Bluebirds were runners-up in the first state finals in 1959, and captured their first title the next year. Since then they've won at least three titles each decade, including five since 2000.
Highlands 35, John Hardin 7
John Hardin 0 0 0 7— 7
Highlands 7 14 14 0—35
H—Austin Collinsworth 8 run (Adam Weinel kick); H—Collinsworth 12 run (Weinel kick); H—Collinsworth 4 run (Weinel kick); H—Will Bardo 98 kickoff return (Weinel kick); H—Patrick Towles 11 run (Weinel kick); JH—Jeremy Harness 35 pass from Matt Simmons (Alan Harber kick).
Records: Highlands 15-0, John Hardin 14-1.