By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds football team would not mind a repeat of last year in the 60th meeting against its arch-rivals.
The Bluebirds took down the arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels, 42-37 in the regular-season matchup before downing the Colonels again, 49-14 in the Region 4 title game on their way to a fifth consecutive state championship. They meet again for the Region 4 championship at 7 p.m. Friday back at David Cecil Memorial Stadium in Fort Thomas.
Class 4A’s top-ranked Highlands (11-1) faces that task against CovCath (9-3) after both teams dominated their first two playoff opponents from District 8. Highlands won the District 7 opener for both teams, 35-21 on Sept. 21.
The Bluebirds took care of Boyd County, 56-14 and Ashland Blazer, 52-13 in the first two rounds of the playoffs for combined scores of 108-27. The Colonels downed Rowan County, 67-3 and host Johnson Central, 45-15 for combined scores of 112-18.
“I really can’t say enough for our players about their work habits and character and how much it means to them,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “You can see how they’ve gotten so much better and so much more confident and so much more skilled each week. It’s really now all geared for this. The guys are just so ready for this game.”
History resides with the Bluebirds. They lead the all-time series, 42-17 and have won the previous eight meetings during their 84-3 run since the start of 2007. Also, in the previous four seasons when the teams met in the playoffs, the winner also won the regular season contests. Highlands knocked off Covington Catholic twice last year, 2007 and 2004 and Covington Catholic did the same in 2006. The last time the teams split came in 2001 when Highlands won the regular-season meeting before Covington Catholic won the playoff game.
The Bluebirds must continue to do a lot of things they’ve done all year to continue the run. That begins with a balanced offense that averages 53.8 points, 502.2 yards and a little more than 7.58 touchdowns a game.
Highlands has run for 3,090 yards and passed for 2,936 more. Senior quarterback Donovan McCoy leads the way with 735 yards rushing on 95 carries and 13 touchdowns for an average of 7.7 a touch. He’s also completed 142-of-223 passes for 2,300 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Zach Harris leads Highlands rushing the ball with 97 carries for 766 yards and 15 touchdowns for an average of 7.9 a touch. Jaylen Hayes has 735 yards on 55 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of 10.7 a carry.
Eight different Bluebirds have 10 or more receptions. Senior Luke Turner leads the way with 31 catches for 641 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ashland picked off two against Highlands before the Bluebirds found their offensive groove and the put the game away in the second half. Highlands hopes to avoid a similar start against a good CovCath defense.
“On both interceptions, their guy made a great catch,” Mueller said. “We threw it in an area where he could get to it if he made a great catch. As receivers, we have to make sure we break on the ball and it’s incomplete if it’s not a completion. All three factors led the interceptions. We’re a team that doesn’t turn it over often and I feel confident we’re a team that won’t turn it over often against Covington Catholic.”
The Bluebirds went with a ground attack in the regular season meeting gaining 348 yards including 293 on the ground. McCoy had 27 carries for 115 yards and completed 5-of-7 passes for 55 yards and a 5-yard touchdown to Jac Collinsworth. Colin Seidl had 86 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown and Harris had 72 yards on 16 attempts with two touchdowns.
The Highlands offensive line hopes to continue to block well. Covington Catholic has allowed just 127 points all season for an average of about 10.6 a game.
“They got a lot of guys that try hard,” said Richie Whitford, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “They care about (football) just as much as we do. We just have to keep consistent and try hard. You have to keep blocking until the whistle blows and keep fighting.”
Sophomore linebacker Sam Burchell leads the Colonels with 87 tackles and senior defensive lineman Dan Hellman has 73 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Junior defensive backs Adam Fischer and Mathew Way lead CovCath with three interceptions a piece.
“Covington Catholic is going to put 11 excellent football players out on the field,” Mueller said. “They make us earn what we get. It’s a matter of doing what we got to do to get the ball down the field and score. To beat Covington Catholic, you have to be a good football team that is prepared and executes.”
On the other side, the Highlands 3-4 defense hopes to again put the clamps on the CovCath spread offense led by senior quarterback Blake Bir. The Colonels had just 236 yards in total offense in the first meeting. Bir completed 12-of-19 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns and ran for just 11 yards on seven carries.
Bir has completed 156-of-269 passes for 2,663 yards and 37 touchdowns. Bir completed 17-of-25 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns against Johnson Central.
“They don’t have specific routes,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands co-head coach and defensive coordinator. “They run the routes that are open. (Bir) is a great quarterback and they have great receivers. We’re going to try to contain them and give our offense a chance to win the game. They’re too good to stop so we have to do the best we can.”
His brother Luke leads the Colonels with 535 yards on 64 carries and six touchdowns for an average of about 8.4 a touch. Luke Bir had just 54 yards on six touchdowns in the regular season meeting for an average of nine a carry. Sam Dressman was expected to take over the running back load but has been battling injuries.
Senior Ethan Egbers has been Blake Bir’s main target. Egbers has 41 catches for 773 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had just one reception for 14 yards in the regular season meeting. Matt Summe led the Colonels with three catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns in that game.
“(Egbers) is pretty good,” said Blake Schutte, Highlands defensive back. “They’ve been trying to get him the ball a lot more. (Blake Bir) is really accurate, but if we apply a lot of pressure on him, it will be hard for him to make good passes.”
The Bluebirds allow averages of 19.2 points, 2.6 touchdowns and 272.7 yards a contest. Reid Schroder leads Highlands with eight tackles for a loss and Thomas Wrobleski has six sacks. Defensive back Quentin Murray leads Highlands with four interceptions and Griffin Urlage has three. Eleven different Bluebirds have one fumble recovery a piece.
Highlands has played in big games all season. The first five opponents of the regular season are playing for regional championships. Aside from CovCath, they are Scott County, Boyle County, Mason County and Louisville Western. Highlands handed Scott County, the 2011 Class 6A runner-up, its lone loss.
The Bluebirds have not lost a regional championship since 2005. They fell to eventual state champion Lexington Catholic that year.