By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The first-round opponent is the same as last year.
But the result may not change much based on the two football teams’ seedings and tradition. The Highlands Bluebirds overwhelmed the Boyd County Lions, 63-7 to open the Class 4A playoffs last year on their way to a fifth consecutive state championship.
Like last year, Highlands (9-1) won the District 7 championship for the second straight year and its 16th title in 17 years while Boyd County comes in with an identical 5-5 record. The Lions finished fourth in District 8 and have to travel about two hours and 39 minutes as a result for the 7:30 p.m. contest Friday.
“We feel good about the game,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach. “We’ve definitely had a better season than Boyd has. It is a game we’re looking first to win because it is one-and-out. But it is also a game where we’re looking to execute well and play as well as we can play and not just good enough to win.”
The Lions enter the game on a three-game winnings streak while Highlands pounded Ryle, 58-13 to end the season. But the Bluebirds own five wins over teams with winning records in Boyle County (6-4), Scott County (9-1), Mason County (6-4), Covington Catholic (7-3) and Covington Holmes (6-4). Their only loss came to Ohio High School Athletic Association Division I Cincinnati Elder (7-3).
The two recent wins for Boyd County came against winless Greenup County and West Carter. The Lions, under first-year head coach Ray Brooks, had to hold off the Comets, 14-7 on Friday.
Gaje Ayers ran the ball 17 times for 66 yards and Reid Dearfield had 64 yards on 20 attempts for the Lions. Boyd’s two touchdowns came on a Dearfield 10-yard run in the second quarter and a quarterback Billy McCoy 15-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Barnwell with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
Ayers and Dearfield lead the Lion rushing attack. Dearfield has 628 yards on 117 carries with four touchdowns for an average of 5.3 a carry and Ayers has 592 yards on 123 carries and five touchdowns for an average of 4.8 a touch.
Boyd County has not beaten a team with a winning record this year. The Lions’ other three wins came against Shelby Valley (3-7), East Carter (2-8) and Magoffin County (4-6).
Opponents have averaged 20.4 points, 192.1 yards rushing and 84.4 yards passing per game against the Bluebirds. Highlands scored its first defensive touchdown of the year when sophomore defensive back Griffin Urlage returned an interception back 70 yards on the last play of the game Friday.
“It actually felt really good,” Urlage said of the touchdown. “It was fun. The coaches were telling me to go down. I really didn’t hear them so I took it and ended up scoring. We just have to bring (the intensity) hard (Friday).”
The Bluebirds have 56 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks, 11 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries this year. Reid Schroder leads Highlands with 6.5 tackles for a loss totaling 12 yards and Thomas Wrobleski has 4.5 for 10 yards to go with six sacks for a total of 67 yards. Senior linebacker Joe Paolucci has 4.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks and senior defensive back Quentin Murray has four interceptions.
Conversely, the Bluebirds will bring out their quick-scoring offense. Highlands averages 53.7 points, 505.9 yards and 7.6 touchdowns a contest.
“(Balanced) is what we hope to be (offensively) every year,” Mueller said. “We are that team this year. We really try to execute the play that gets called. The guys are just great at it.”
Quarterback Donovan McCoy has completed 122-of-194 passes for 1,949 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions and rushed for 579 yards on 84 attempts and 11 touchdowns for an average of about 6.9 yards a carry.
Zach Harris leads Highlands with 736 yards on 89 carries and 13 touchdowns for an average of about 8.3 a carry. Jaylen Hayes, Ryan Donovan and Colin Seidl have rushed for at least 321 yards for the Bluebirds. Harris has been battling a bone bruise the last couple of weeks and may not play Friday unless it is close so the other running backs could get more carries.
“You have to be prepared for anything,” Donovan said. “If someone gets hurt, you pretty much have to go in and do what you have to do.”
Luke Turner leads a talented Highlands receiving corps with 26 catches for 515 yards and seven touchdowns. He had seven catches for 172 yards and four touchdowns against Ryle. Teammates Luke Brockett, Nick True, Justin Weyer, Brandon Hergott and Ryan Greene have at least 10 catches and two touchdowns.
This will mark just the second meeting between the two teams. The Bluebirds have never lost in the first round of the playoffs since Mueller came on staff in 1994.