By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
During their impressive run of five state championships, the two losses for the Highlands Bluebirds football team came in even years.
The Bluebirds hopes to buck the trend this year. With the way their seasons have gone, the only game of major concern after the wins over Boyle County, Scott County and Covington Catholic was the home contest against the Cincinnati Elder Panthers of the Greater Catholic League.
That fear came to fruition in a 38-24 loss at David Cecil Memorial on Friday. The Panthers used their huge offensive line to open holes for junior running back Chris Schroer and the Highlands offense missed some opportunities in the defeat.
The loss snapped a 28-game winning streak for the Bluebirds (8-1) and a 44-game home winning streak dating back to 2006. During their 81-3 run since the start of 2007, Highlands’ other two losses came at Cincinnati Colerain, 33-18 on Sept. 5, 2008 and 28-26 at Ryle on Oct. 28, 2010.
“It’s a great experience for us,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “It was a really competitive team we played. We’re used to winning. Some things just didn’t go our way. A game like (Friday) really makes you a better football team. There’s no better practice for a state championship than this. A state championship is our ultimate goal.”
Schroer finished with 259 yards on 45 carries for an average of about 5.8 a carry and five touchdowns as Elder attacked between the tackles. It marked the second straight week Schroer passed 200 yards on the ground.
“(Schroer) just kept his feet moving,” said Quentin Murray, Highlands defensive back. “They had a pretty big line. Our game plan was to make sure we stayed low and get good penetration. I feel we did a good job of that. There were some things we missed. But overall, there are a lot of positives that came out of that. It showed us that we’re a really good football team. As a team, we’re fine. I don’t think there’s anybody down.”
The stats were pretty even. Elder outgained Highlands, 394-381 in total offense, including 284-213 on the ground. The Panthers held the ball for 29 minutes, 25 seconds of the game’s 48 minutes. Elder had 24 first downs to 20 for Highlands.
Donovan McCoy once again led Highlands with 113 yards on 16 carries for an average of just more than seven a carry. McCoy also completed 16-of-30 passes for 168 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Teammate Zach Harris followed with 95 yards rushing on 11 carries for an 8.6 average a touch with a touchdown.
“Had we made some things happen offensively, we’d have been in better position,” Mueller said. “Some things went well. It was just better competition. They had 11 guys on the field that, in general, are better than the 11 guys we normally play.”
Luke Turner led Highlands with seven catches for 71 yards. Harris followed with four for 44 yards. The Bluebirds played without Jac Collinsworth, a senior 6-foot-5-inch big-play threat at wide receiver. He’s battling back problems and could return in the playoffs.
Elder did not throw the ball as effectively. Quarterback Josh Moore completed 5-of-14 passes for 110 yards and an interception. Murray picked off that pass in the end zone on Elder’s opening drive.
McCoy opened the scoring with a 63-yard touchdown down the right sideline. But the Panthers responded with a drive that ended with a Matt Murray 36-yard field goal.
After a Highlands punt, Schroer scored his first touchdown on a 3-yard run. But Highlands responded with a Luke Brockett 26-yard field goal. The score was tied at 10 at halftime.
The Bluebirds did have a chance to go ahead at halftime following a Panther turnover. But the field goal missed left.
Highlands opened the second half with a long drive that ended with a Harris 2-yard score. But Elder came back and scored on a Schroer 1-yard plunge to tie the game at 17.
The momentum swung quickly. McCoy tried to throw a screen pass, but Elder’s A.J. Burdine picked it off at the Highlands 45 and returned it to the 29 with nine seconds left in the third.
Schroer then put Elder up for good. He broke free for a 19-yard touchdown run with 10:39 left on 4th-and-one.
After a Highlands punt, the Panthers ate more time off the clock. Schroer scored from 22-yards out with 5:55 left.
The Bluebirds then returned the kickoff back for a touchdown. But the back judge threw the flag from 50 yards away from the play calling Highlands for a chop block.
Highlands still scored when McCoy found Luke Brockett with 3:37 left in the game on a 10-yard touchdown pass. But after recoving the onside kick, Schroer scored again from 18 yards out to make the final score.