As Highlands was winning the biggest game of the year last season and one of the monumental wins in their program's storied history, there was an injury that could have derailed their whole season and dashed their state title hopes. Senior quarterback Will Bardo was brought down from behind on the sideline and came down awkwardly on his throwing arm.
The Bluebirds held on to beat Cincinnati powerhouse St. Xavier and ended up going undefeated and winning a state title.
Bardo's injury was serious enough that he needed surgery to be able to throw, but he instead decided to finish the season helping the team in other ways. That meant that the Bluebirds had to throw sophomore Patrick Towles into the fire and let him lead a team with state title aspirations.
Towles more than lived up to expectations as a young quarterback who got thrown into a tough situation. He started the last nine games of the season at the quarterback position and accumulated 1,138 yards passing with 10 touchdowns through the air and was only picked off twice. He also added five touchdowns on the ground.
"It's a huge confidence builder," Towles said about having a successful first season. "It was definitely surprising that I got the opportunity so early. I was definitely nervous but when you've got a division-I running back pressure is minimal."
The running back he's referring to is Austin Collinsworth, a University of Notre Dame commitment, who tallied over 1,500 yards rushing with 23 touchdowns. While Towles is humble and deflects praise thrown his way off to his teammates, the quarterback knows that the expectations in Fort Thomas are extremely high for the Bluebirds and if they didn't stay on track last season a lot of blame could have been thrown his way.
"The expectations for us are unbelievable but we go into the season thinking we are capable of what people expect," Towles said. "If we don't win state it will be an unsuccessful season."
While to some that last statement may seem a little over the top, he is right on point with the fans expectations for the team. State titles have become the norm at Highlands and anything less will be looked at as unsatisfactory by the people of Fort Thomas.
In fact, state titles have become so commonplace that even head coach Dale Mueller is looking for new goals. This past season Mueller started on a campaign to promote Highlands as the top team in the nation and telling reporters that the Bluebirds wanted to be not just state champions but national champions. If you're wondering whether or not that's just him having fun with the media members it isn't.
"He actually talks about it all the time," Towles said. "We want to be national champions. He is dead serious about that. He's got us buying into the idea that we can be the best team in the country. We definitely buy into it. We see it as a reasonable goal."
According to USA Today's Super 25 national preps rankings, the Bluebirds fell two slots shy of their goal of national champions finishing at third in the nation. However, as Towles quickly pointed out, there is always the next year.
"Last year was awesome but I think this year is going to be even better," he said.
While Collinsworth is gone to play for the Golden Domers, there are still plenty of weapons on the offensive side of the ball for the Bluebirds. Towles having another year of experience should mean that the offense opens up a little bit more and lets him throw the ball downfield on a more consistent basis.
That's a good thing for returning starting receiver Daniel Gold. Gold caught a touchdown in the state finals as a sophomore but still had to wait his turn to an extent with seniors Nick Buten and John Drennan in the lineup. He could combine with Towles to be one of the top passing duos in the area.
"He's the guy that will make plays that you don't think anyone can do," Towles said about his top receiver. "He just goes over top of people to make plays."
Gold and Austin Sheehan, who Towles describes as a "real speedy guy," should give the Bluebirds a strong passing game. Accompanying Towles will be a diverse backfield that should take some pressure off of him with feature back Jordan Streeter being the do it all type of back and Corey Compton being a bruising style runner.
Something else that should aid Towles in his development is new quarterback coach Jared Lorenzen, who has been helping the team since May. Lorenzen is a former Highlands great who went on to play at Kentucky and then in the NFL where he won a super bowl with the New York Giants. Towles says that Lorenzen's age and football experience gives him a lot of credibility.
"He relates a little more because he's a young guy," he said about his new coach. "In film sessions you're in awe of all the things he sees and points out."
Towles knows that this season is a big one for him personally as far as recruiting purposes go. The signal-caller has been out at camps working and getting feedback from college coaching staffs. Lorenzen has also been able to give valuable advice about the recruiting process.
"It's always good to get your feet wet and get exposure," Towles said. "I've been talking to Jared about it and he said take all the stuff they tell you as suggestions and try to add snippets to your game."
Towles says he's been talking to Northwestern and Kentucky so far with other school starting to send mail and try and get involved. The process has just begun for the 2012 prospect, but his future school could already be one of the programs currently recruiting him.
"Growing up in Kentucky I've always said I want to go to Kentucky," he said. "I always said if I do go to Kentucky I'd want be the first quarterback to beat Tennessee in like 20-something years."
Be sure to keep an eye out for Towles this season as he takes the field for his first full year as the varsity starter. Another great season looks to be on the horizon for the Bluebirds and this rising star.