Pioneers Score Game-Winning TD with 14 Seconds Left to Edge Bluebirds
Head Coach Brian Weinrich and staff challenged more play-makers to step forward, especially with the game on the line.
The Bluebirds (2-4 overall) had a lot more of them do that in order to give Highlands a good chance to win the tough battle in Independence against the undefeated Simon Kenton Pioneers on Friday. But once again, they did not step forward in the final minutes and the Pioneers edged the Bluebirds, 35-30 in non-region action scoring the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left. Highlands has lost four in a row for the third straight season.
"We have to make plays. It's that simple," Weinrich said. "We had the game. It shouldn't have been close. We know and our guys know. It doesn't matter. They made the plays and we didn't make the plays. You can't win games if you don't make plays."
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Highlands gave itself a chance by not turning the ball over for the second straight game while recording three takeaways. Junior linebacker Alex Starkey and junior cornerback Bailey Armstrong recovered Pioneer fumbles and junior defensive lineman Ben Sisson had a number of tackles in the backfield and intercepted a Shearer pass after jumping up in the air, redirecting the path up and into his arms before running 11 yards for a touchdown to put Highlands up 17-7 with 2:02 left in the second quarter.
"(The Highlands defense) played well. We were out there a lot," Weinrich said. "We had a chance to put them away and we didn't do it."
On the offensive side, Highlands ran the ball better than it has in recent games. The Bluebirds had 382 yards on 83 plays for an average of just more than 4.6 per play and 21 first down. Highlands had 221 yards rushing total with nice protection from the offensive line. Senior Larry Wilson broke out to rush for 171 yards on 18 carries and including a 52-yard scamper for an average of 9.5 per touch.
Highlands quarterback Carl Schoellman completed 16-of-27 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Griffin Huber had three catches for 46 yards and a touchdown and senior Nick Veneman had four receptions for 34 yards and touchdown. Wilson and senior Jared Wogan added three catches each.
The Bluebirds did better converting on third and fourth down this week. They converted 7-of-19 on third down for 37 percent and 2-of-3 on fourth down for 67 percent. Simon Kenton converted 4-of-11 for 36 percent and neither fourth-down try.
"Anytime you lose, it's frustrating," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "You didn't make the plays you need to make in order to win. That's what happened whether it's in a couple minutes or over the course of the game. We have to get better at not making those mistakes."
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"I think that says a lot for the kind of teammates we are and the love we have for each other," said Jeff Marksberry, Simon Kenton Head Coach. "That's kind of what we've tried to build within our team. I could see it on film. I could see (Highlands) getting better. I could see the confidence they were gaining and it showed (Friday). That's a game you don't want anyone to lose. We're fortunate to be on the winning end of it. We had a lot of seniors who played a lot of football for us that stepped up at the end and made some plays."
Both teams did not have the services of key running backs. Highlands junior Cooper Schwalbach was not able to play and junior Jon Sergent could not go for Simon Kenton.
Highlands received the ball first and punted after moving the ball some to swamp field position. But on the first offensive play, Hayden ran behind the Highlands secondary and ran 84 yards for a touchdown with 9:02 left in the first quarter.
But the Pioneers did not lead for long. Highlands drove down the field and Veneman broke free for a wide-open 23-yard touchdown pass from Schoellman on the right side of the end zone. Highlands junior Grady Cramer then took the snap in the swinging-gate formation and ran up the middle for a two-point conversion with 7:29 left in the first to give Highlands an 8-7 advantage.
Later in the quarter, Highlands saw junior Nick Bowman hit the first of three field goals from 26 yards away to make it 11-7 Bluebirds. The Bluebird defense played solid for several possessions, but the offense could not add to the lead.
But that's when Sisson stepped forward with his big play. But Simon Kenton responded with a touchdown drive to end the first half. Shearer found Hayden for a three-yard out route on the left side of the end zone to cut the Highlands lead to 17-14 at halftime.
"I wasn't nice to them at halftime," Marksberry said. "I just wasn't happy with our execution, wasn't happy with our performance. Even through the second half, we still continued to struggle a little bit. We were able to get some stops and we weren't able to convert a couple third downs, keep the ball and go score earlier. We made it interesting and fortunately, we had enough left in the tank to pull through and I'm really proud of them."
The Bluebirds extended the lead to 24-14 in the third quarter. Huber took a Schoellman pass and broke free for a 23-yard score and Bowman hit a 33-yard field goal with 11:51 left in the game. Highlands had a touchdown called back on a tight wide receiver hold prior to the kick.
But the Pioneers struck quickly. Shearer scored from two yards out with 10:11 left to make it 27-21 Bluebirds.
Following two defensive stops, Highlands drove the field again with a steady dose of strong runs. Bowman booted a 30-yard field goal with 3:12 left in the game before the Pioneers pulled it out.
Highlands has next week off to prepare for Class 5A, District 5 action. Dixie Heights comes to Fort Thomas on Oct. 6.
Link to Box Score: