By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Junior Jaylen Hayes epitomized the way the Highlands Bluebirds football team has dominated the competition over the years.
On his first of three touchdowns, Hayes took the ball out of the Highland spread offense and ran left from the Bluebird 30-yard line. Three Boyd County Lion defenders tried to tackle him at about the Bluebird 45. But Hayes lowered his center of gravity, broke free of all three tackles and ran 70 yards for a touchdown.
Three minutes later in the second quarter, Hayes took another handoff left and stiff-armed two Lion defenders for a 35-yard score before adding a 5-yarder 37 seconds after Highlands recovered an onside kick.
Hayes finished with an amazing 110 yards on those three touchdown runs for an average of about 36.7 yards a carry. But more importantly, the runs gave Highlands a 42-7 lead with 7:51 left in the half as the Bluebirds put away another opponent in a 56-14 Class 4A first-round playoff victory Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. That again let Highlands play some reserves in the second half and get some of them their first taste of the playoffs (see sidebar).
“I’m just trying as hard as I can to get into the end zone,” Hayes said. “I’ve been practicing squats (to strengthen the upper body) lately and working more on my power than my speed. That’s a big part of the winter weights we do. We started in January and continued through spring football. Even after that, we still lifted weights and continued what we call getting big.”
Top-ranked Highlands (10-1) moved to 83-3 since the start of 2007, including a 78-1 mark against Kentucky competition. The Bluebirds won their 26th consecutive playoff game and 45th in a row against Kentucky opponents at home.
“They just played great,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach. “They executed so well. Defensively, we executed how we wanted to. It went exactly how we hoped.”
Highlands now faces the Ashland Blazer Tomcats (9-2) in the second round Friday back in Fort Thomas. Blazer downed Covington Holmes, 41-14 Friday in Ashland.
Boyd County finished the season 5-6 for the second consecutive season and will graduate 13 seniors from the team. The Lions came into the game on a three-game winning streak following a four-game losing streak.
The Lions hired a new head coach in Ray Brooks in the offseason. They finished 2-8 two seasons ago and have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since beating McCreary Central, 34-6 in 2008.
“When you play a team like this, all you can do is focus on what you can do,” Brooks said. “You can’t get worried about Highlands is going to do this or Highlands is going to do that. I’m so proud of the kids (overall). All you can do is work hard.”
Highlands outgained Boyd County, 464-270 in total offense. That included 262-105 through the air. Donovan McCoy completed 8-of-9 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns before Drew Houliston took over midway through the second quarter. Houliston completed 8-of-13 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
After Hayes, senior Ryan Donovan added 77 yards rushing on nine carries for an average of just more than 8.5 a touch. The Bluebird offensive linemen, tight ends and wide receivers blocked well again.
“We’re glad we played well,” said Jack Telek, Highlands sophomore tight end. “We had to block (teammates) all week so we’re glad we were able to execute.”
David Christian led Highlands with three catches for 61 yards. He’d been trying to get back all season from an injury. Luke Turner, Brandon Hergott, Beau Hoge and Alex Veneman followed with two catches a piece. Turner and Hergott had 51 and 43 yards receiving respectively.
Some other stats showed how well Highlands executed offensively. The Bluebirds scored on all six trips to the red zone. They also converted on 4-of-7 third-down opportunities compared to 4-of-13 for the Lions.
Boyd County also scored touchdowns on 1-of-2 trips to the red zone. The Lions lost a fumble on the other.
The Bluebirds led 21-0 after the first quarter scoring three quick touchdowns. McCoy scored on a 17-yard touchdown before throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Greene and a 7-yarder to Nick True.
The Lions did have some hope to start the second quarter. Jacob Barnwell leaped over a Highlands defensive back and rambled 50 yards down the right side for a touchdown with 11:51 left in the second quarter.
But Hayes scored his three touchdowns and Hergott hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Houliston to give the Bluebirds a 49-7 halftime lead. Highlands’ final touchdown came with 4:05 left in the third quarter. Hoge hauled in a 21-yard touchdown on 4th-and-goal.
The Lions scored their second touchdown with 10:15 remaining in the final stanza. Reid Dearfield had a 5-yard touchdown score.
Dearfield led the Lions with 70 yards rushing on 16 carries for an average of 4.4 a touch. Boyd County ran the Double Slot Wing-T and often pitched it to him going outside or up the middle with quarterback Billy McCoy or Gaje Ayers. Ayers finished with 53 yards rushing on 12 carries for an average of 4.4 a touch.
Billy McCoy completed 6-of-11 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Barnwell had two receptions for 55 yards.
Highlands moved to 19-0 in first-round playoff games since Mueller took over as head coach. The Bluebirds are 838-225-26 since starting the program in 1915, including an 18-5-1 mark against Blazer.