By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds football team knew it had history on its side entering Friday’s second-round Class 4A playoff game.
The Ashland Blazer Tomcats had not beaten the Bluebirds since 1954. Despite that, Ashland made a game of it trailing just 16-13 at halftime. But the top-ranked Bluebirds (11-1) gave the visiting Tomcats (9-3) no more hope of an upset in the second half outscoring them, 32-0 to pull away for a 52-13 victory at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. Highlands moved to 84-3 since the start of 2007.
“(Ashland has) some good football players,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “They played well. Their problem is they didn’t have as many good football players as we do. Halftime was about getting ready to run the plays we were going to run in the second half.”
With their 27th consecutive playoff win, the Bluebirds earned another trip to the Region 4 championship. They will face the arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels (9-3) back in Fort Thomas on Friday. CovCath downed host Johnson Central, 45-15 Friday in Paintsville. The Bluebirds beat the Colonels, 35-21 on Sept. 21, also in Fort Thomas.
Highlands scored touchdowns on all five possessions of the second half to put the game out of reach. That came after the Bluebirds struggled with three turnovers in the first half on seven possessions. They turned the ball over four times in the win over Ryle in the first quarter before pulling away in the second quarter two weeks ago.
The Bluebird balanced offense again proved to be the difference once it hit full steam. Highlands outgained Ashland, 511-250 in total offense, including 281-(minus-10) through the air. The Bluebirds put the clamps down on Ashland’s running game in the second half (see side story).
Highlands senior quarterback Donovan McCoy completed 12-of-20 passes for 241 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions and Drew Houliston completed his lone pass attempt for 40 yards. McCoy also led Highlands in the rushing department going for 133 yards on nine carries and a touchdown for an average of about 14.8 a carry.
“Donovan has always been a winner,” Mueller said. “He played great as a junior at wide receiver. He’s having such a great year. He’s thrown for more than 2,000 yards and made great runs when we needed them.”
The Bluebirds tried to throw the ball deep out of their spread offense. But the Tomcats kept a safety in the middle of the field. That’s how they recorded two interceptions in the end zone. Logan Salow recorded both picks for the Tomcats.
Highland found success with the passing game throwing the ball short toward the sidelines. Nine different Bluebird receivers had catches. Luke Turner led the way with three catches for 85 yards. Luke Brockett and David Christian had two catches each for 85 and 31 yards respectively.
“(McCoy) just started calling flag (routes) more instead of fades,” said Alex Veneman, Highlands sophomore wide receiver. “We would go to the outside to get away from the safety so we could get open. You then try to get as far as you can.”
Ashland quarterback Aaron Elam completed two of his four passes. But the completions to Salow and Josh Hatfield each went for 5-yard losses.
Zach Harris finished with three touchdowns for the Bluebirds. He had eight carries for 25 tough yards and two touchdowns and scored another touchdown on an 8-yard screen pass.
“We’re usually not a team that runs off momentum,” Harris said. “It helped a bunch (Friday). The (offensive) line did well the whole time. Bad things are going to happen. But you have to persevere through that. It’s about execution.”
The punting statistics showed who won the game. Ashland punted the ball nine times for an average of about 30.5 a boot. Highlands senior punter J.C. Mettens booted the pigskin once for 47 yards.
Ashland took a 7-0 lead after the first Salow interception. Elam scored on a 10-yard run. But Highlands came back to take an 8-7 lead after the first quarter on a Harris 7-yard run. Brandon Hergott hauled in the two-point conversion pass from McCoy.
The Bluebirds kept that lead until the 6:21 points of the second quarter. Evan Youngue broke free for a 66-yard touchdown scamper and the pass failed. The Tomcats led 13-8 for the final time.
Highlands had not trailed at halftime since a 24-15 deficit to Boyle County in the season-opener. The Bluebirds made sure they didn’t against Ashland with a late drive. McCoy scored from three yards out and added the two-point conversion with 52 seconds left in the half to go up for good at 16-13. McCoy set up the score with a 31-yard run on a read option.
Highlands pulled away with a 22-0 run in the third quarter. The Bluebirds led 38-13 entering the fourth quarter. That started with Harris’ 8-yard touchdown reception and 1-yard run. Colin Seidl capped it off with an 8-yard touchdown run. McCoy set up the second touchdown with a 29-yard scamper and Turner had a 55-yard reception to set up Seidl’s score.
The Bluebirds added two more touchdowns for cushion in the final stanza. Jaylen Hayes had a 3-yard touchdown run with 10:01 remaining and James Grau scored from two yards out with five minutes left. Houliston completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Veneman to set up the Grau score.
Highlands improved to 19-5-1 all-time against Ashland. The Bluebirds also beat the Tomcats, 53-6 in 2008 during the playoff winning streak.