By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds football team knows it can’t add on to its state record of 13 undefeated seasons.
But the Bluebirds (8-1) did learn a valuable lesson from Friday’s loss to the Cincinnati Elder Panthers. They need to prepare better for teams like Elder that have big offensive lines and a bruising running back.
“We feel like we made a big step up (Monday),” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach. “We looked at the film. One guy at the Olympics this past year came in second and said, ‘That’s really what I trained for. That’s what I got.’ We trained for 8-1. That was our fault. Now, we want make sure we train for the state championship.”
Elder running back Chris Schroer ran for 259 yards on 45 carries for an average of 5.8 a carry and five touchdowns in the 38-24 Panther win that snapped Highlands’ 28-game winning streak. Other opponents have tried running between the tackles against the Bluebirds, but not with the same level of success. Boyle County did it well in the first half of the season opener.
The Bluebirds are still 81-3 since the start of 2007. They bounced back in huge ways after the other two losses in that timeframe. After losing to Cincinnati Colerain in 2008, Highlands beat Covington Holmes, 70-6. Then in 2010 following that loss to Ryle, the Bluebirds smashed Woodford County, 70-8 to open the Class 5A playoffs.
Highlands travels back to Union to face Ryle for the first time since its lone defeat to a Kentucky opponent since 2007. But the 7:30 p.m. meeting Friday will be different than previous years.
The Bluebirds are heavy favorites to beat the struggling Ryle Raiders (3-6). Ryle comes into the game on a three-game losing streak. Dixie Heights knocked off the host Raiders, 15-14 in overtime Friday. That left Ryle at 1-3 in Class 6A, District 6. The Raiders finished with the fourth seed in their district for the playoffs. The Raiders have been outscored by an average of about 23.6-13.8.
Like other opponents, Ryle may try to attack Highlands between the tackles. Tanner Pulice has taken over as the team’s main back in a spread offense. Pulice has 789 yards on 181 carries for an average of about 4.4 a carry and five touchdowns.
“(Schroer) ran really hard and was hard to bring down,” said Thomas Wrobleski, Highlands junior linebacker. “The (Elder offensive) linemen were really relentless. If we had (Schroer) stood up, the linemen would come push the pile forward and get a couple extra yards. We’ll work on that this week and be ready for (Ryle). We’ll watch a lot of film this week.”
Big things were expected of senior quarterback Nathan Davis. But he has struggled rushing for just 257 yards on 104 carries and touchdowns. The Raiders have tried a couple others at quarterback as Davis has thrown for just 284 yards and three touchdowns completing 20-of-51 passes.
Highlands will counter with its 3-4 defense. Wrobleski leads the Bluebirds with five sacks. Wrobleski and Reid Schroder have 4.5 tackles for a loss and Quentin Murray has four interceptions for Highlands.
On the other side of the ball, the Highlands spread offense will counter a Ryle 5-2 slanting defense. Daniel Osborne leads the Raiders with 60 tackles and Dylan Plvan has two fumble recoveries.
The Raiders struggled against a spread offense in a 51-20 loss at Campbell County about two weeks ago. The Camels gained 424 yards of total offense. Campbell County standout quarterback Tyler Durham ran for 119 yards on 24 carries and three touchdowns for an average of about five a carry. Durham also completed 8-of-10 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
Highlands has tallied 479 points, 4,592 yards and 68 touchdowns for an average of 53.2 points, 510.2 yards and 7.5 touchdowns a contest. Opponents have put up 191 points, 2,537 yards and 25 touchdowns for an average of 21.2 points, 281.9 yards and 2.8 touchdowns a contest.
Zach Harris leads the Bluebirds with 736 yards on 89 attempts and 13 touchdowns for an average of about 8.3 a carry. Teammate Donovan McCoy has 535 yards on 82 carries and 11 touchdowns for an average of about 6.5 a touch.
McCoy has also completed 107-of-173 passes for 1,692 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Luke Turner leads the Highlands receivers with 19 catches for 343 yards and three touchdowns for an average of 18.1 yards a reception.
Highlands hopes to finish drives better this week. The Bluebirds converted just 5-of-12 on third down and 1-of-2 on fourth against Elder.
“We would drive almost all the way down the field and make one mistake,” said Nick True, Highlands senior tight end. “It ended up being three-and-out. We’re trying to keep those mistakes from happening, keep the drives going and end up scoring.”
The Raiders face the Scott County Cardinals to open the 6A playoffs next week in Georgetown. That will mark the only common opponent between the two teams.
It could also mark the second time in two straight weeks Ryle will battle a one-loss opponent if Scott County (8-1) beats Simon Kenton on Friday. No one has come within 20 points of Jim McKee’s District 7 Champion Cardinals since Highlands beat them, 60-37 on Aug. 24.
“I’m sure they’re trying to get better this week,” Mueller said. “It’s a big game for us. We don’t lose games too often around here. We surely don’t want to lose two in a row.”
The Bluebirds lead the all-time series, 10-2 against the Raiders. Ryle opened in 1992. The last time Highlands lost two in a row was 2006 when the Bluebirds lost to Elder (21-18) at home on Sept. 1 before dropping a 35-21 decision to Louisville St. Xavier eight days later at Paul Brown Stadium.