LOUISVILLE — If Highlands sold stock in its football program, the economy would get a boost and we all might have happier holidays.
Highlands football, as robust as ever, claimed its 18th state title Friday night by beating Christian County 35-15 in front of 5,206 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
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The Bluebirds got off to a shaky start — they had two early turnovers and had to rally twice to take a 15-9 halftime lead — but they dominated the second half and repeated as state champs.
Coach Dale Mueller, who has won seven titles at Highlands, said he didn't have to give his team any kind of pep talk at halftime.
"These guys really don't need words because they're such high character," he said.
"They're so focused, they work so hard and it means so much to them, I didn't need to motivate them."
Josh Conner, who was sidelined for the first half of the season while recovering from a broken leg, led Highlands' offense by rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Quarterback Tony Guidugli was a hero, too. He ran for 85 yards, including a 50-yard TD in the second half, and threw for 60 yards and a score.
That TD pass turned the game around late in the first half.
Christian County looked as if it would have the lead at halftime after Josh Knight's 30-yard field goal put the Colonels ahead 9-7 with 33 seconds left.
But Highlands found time to strike back.
Guidugli hooked up with Austin Collinsworth on a 47-yard pass that gave the Bluebirds the ball at the Christian County 13. Highlands scored on the next play when Guidugli scrambled free and threw a TD pass to a well-covered Daniel Gold, who made a diving catch at the goal line.
Replays showed that the ball skimmed the turf before Gold scooped it up, but the officials didn't see it and the TD went on the board.
Josh Conner added a two-point conversion run and the Birds went into the locker room on top 15-9.
Mueller said that TD showed his team's resiliency.
"Things are going to go wrong in a game, and when they do you have to buckle your chinstraps back up and go do it," he said. "That's what our guys did."
Guidugli called the score "the big play of the game. It took the momentum from them and got it back for us."
Highlands opened the second half impressively, driving 56 yards in just four plays, and took a 21-9 lead on Conner's 15-yard run.
Christian County pulled to within 21-15 on Vashun Banks' 14-yard run late in the third period, but the Colonels could get no closer.
Guidugli's 50-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter gave the Bluebirds breathing room again, and they added an insurance TD with four minutes left.
Christian County Coach Steve Lovelace credited his team's effort. "These guys gave it everything they had," he said.
Colonels quarterback James Bauer passed for 187 yards. Bubba Tandy had seven catches for 79 yards and David Wallace had five receptions for 86 yards.
This was Christian County's first appearance in the finals since it won its second title in three years in 1984.
Highlands, meanwhile, at least temporarily ties Trinity with most state titles in state history. But the Shamrocks can win No. 19 if they beat Simon Kenton on Saturday night.
Highlands 7 8 6 14—35
Christian County 6 3 6 0—15
CC—Vashun Banks 6 run (run failed); H—Clint Crawford 7 run (Kody Rosenhagen kick); CC—Josh Knight 29 FG; H—Daniel Gold 13 pass from Tony Guidugli (Josh Conner run); H—Conner 15 run (pass failed); CC—Banks 14 run (kick blocked); H—Guidugli 50 run (David Hogue pass from Conner); H—Crawford 11 run (pass failed).
Records: Highlands 14-1, Christian County 13-2.
First downs 16 15
Rushes-Yards 37-262 39-73
Passing 60 187
Comp-Att-Int 2-4-1 14-26-1
Return yards 60 78
Punts-Avg. 2-42.0 2-39.5
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 4-2
Penalties-Yards 4-25 2-20
Time of possession 19:07 28:53