Highlands Bluebirds Head Coach Brian Weinrich has said Lindsey Wilson College Head Football Coach Chris Oliver and the Lindsey Wilson College Blue Raiders coaching staff have done a great job recruiting the Bluebirds in the past.
The winning tradition at Highlands is a major reason like it is other places. Highlands graduates Lou Bunning (Highlands Class of 2015) and Jared Dougherty (2016) helped the Bluebirds to their 23rd and most recent state championship in 2014. Dougherty helped the Bluebirds go back to the Class 5A semifinals his senior year in 2015.
The duo has continued to experience success at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level. The Blue Raiders just completed a season that saw them go 11-1 going 10-0 during the regular season and capturing the Mid-South Conference's Bluegrass Division. Lindsey Wilson proceeded to beat Southeastern University (Florida), 63-49 at home in the first round of the NAIA playoffs before losing a tight battle, 34-29 to Southern Oregon University in the NAIA Football Championship Series Quarterfinals.
"It's a great thing to be able to go down there and really continue to win," Dougherty said. "It's a whole new set of coaches, a whole new set of guys you have to play with. It kind of makes things easy moving forward."
Lindsey Wilson made it to the same round in 2016. The Blue Raiders went 11-2 with a 10-1 regular season that saw its lone loss to Reinhardt University (Georgia) for a 4-1 record in Mid-South West Division play good for second. They beat Grand View University (Iowa), 34-27 in overtime before losing at Baker University (Kansas), 42-27 in the NAIA Football Championship Series Quarterfinals.
"That preparation at Highlands has allowed them to transition well to our football program here at LWC," Oliver said. "The amount of time and work that we put into our process probably wasn't as big of a shock for them as it sometimes can be for many freshmen. In addition, both of these young men come from great families, and that is a big positive for any college coach during the development process. Over the last two seasons, both Lou and Jared have started and logged a lot of snaps at their respective positions. We are excited that both of them still have two more seasons to continue to develop and contribute to our program's quest for a MSC and National Championship."
There are close to 120 players listed on the roster so players can get lost in the shuffle. But Bunning and Dougherty made sure that didn't happen.
Bunning started at center for all 12 games for the Blue Raiders this year. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2015 before cracking the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He started 10-of-13 games that year at right tackle and left tackle. Bunning said learning all five positions on the offensive line increases the chances of starting.
Bunning said the Blue Raiders run a man blocking schemes. Their bread and butter play is the inside zone read and a lot of run-pass options to keep defenses honest. The run-pass option plays involve wide receivers running short routes and the quarterback has to get the ball out quickly before the offensive linemen get four yards downfield.
"Just as a freshman, you have to come in and set realistic goals," Bunning said. "My goal coming in was just to get on the bus and be able to go to away games. I was able to do that. That was a great learning experience. Being with all those guys that were actually playing helped me learn so much."
Dougherty has mostly kicked extra points, field goals and handled kick-offs. He's scored 171 points in his two seasons there making 129 extra-point tries and 14 field goals. The 66 extra-point makes in 2016 are the most in school history in one season. Dougherty credited his teammates for helping him relax in order to perform well on this level.
Dougherty's career-long field-goal try came from 48 yards in the fourth quarter against Southern Oregon on a 4th-and-15. He made a big play booting the ensuing kick-off near the sidelines with the opposing returner stepped out at the half-yard line. Lindsey Wilson then recorded a safety to pull to within 28-22. The Blue Raiders took the lead before giving up the game-winning touchdown with 47 seconds left.
Dougherty did not punt this past season. But he punted four times for 115 yards including a long of 45 yards and pinned opponents inside the 20 three times.
"The biggest thing with punts compared to field goals and kickoffs coming into situations like that is you have to have really good technique," Dougherty said. "It's difficult to be able to pin someone in their own area of you're at the 50, closer or a little further back. You have to play in all the factors with the wind, if you have a dangerous returner, how you're personally feeling that day and what you know you can do. You have to go out there, trust yourself and what you're doing. If you need to place it somewhere, you have to be able to do it. If you're not believing in it, it makes it a little harder."
Dougherty has not been able to hit people consistently like he did in high school as a linebacker. But he's still made four solo and one assisted tackle in his two years on special teams.
"It was rough. I really have kind of adapted to not being able to hit somebody anymore kind of looking at some of my friends getting injured down there," Dougherty said. "It takes some pressure off my shoulders knowing I don't have to worry about taking a big blow. But it'll be something I'll miss going forward no matter what."
Bunning and Dougherty agreed it can be tough adjusting from a town like Fort Thomas located near a big city to the small-town life. Columbia, Kentucky is located in the south central part of the state just 45 minutes west of Somerset on the Cumberland Parkway. It's population is 4,885 residents.
"It's hard at first. You just have to surround yourself with people that make the experience worth it," Bunning said. "I think that's what I've done. I've got three great roommates. They'll all be in my wedding someday. I just love hanging out with these guys and living with them. Even though there's not a whole lot to do here, just dealing with those guys makes up for all the things you're missing out on here."
Bunning credited Highlands for helping him prepare for college life. He's a Criminal Justice major. Bunning was also named to a watch list of college players as part of an academic/athletic team along with Cornell Defensive Lineman and 2014 graduate Seth Hope.
"It's a long day throughout the week. Some days, you have to wake up," Bunning said. "You have to go lift then you have to go to class for three to four hours, then you go to practice, then you have homework late at night. It's tough. But if you manage your time right, you'll be okay. It's not too bad."
Dougherty is undecided on a major. He said a typical day from Tuesday to Friday is class between 8 a.m. and Noon, Practice from 3-6 p.m. before doing homework.
The Blue Raiders practiced on Thanksgiving these last two years. Bunning said it would be nice to be practicing later than that.
"I think we just need to be more consistent," Bunning said. "I think when we're playing our best football, we're right there and we can beat just about any team at our level. I think in the game against Southern Oregon, we missed some great opportunities. We ended up coming up short. We couldn't close the door late in the game."
Lindsey Wilson has been the NAIA playoffs four straight years. The Blue Raiders also lost in the NAIA Football Championship Series Quarterfinals in 2014 before losing in the first round in 2015 when Bunning redshirted.
FORT THOMAS MATTERS: Highlands Football Grads Continue to Win at Next Level