By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Some argue that the Northern Kentucky football rivalry between the Highlands Bluebirds and Covington Catholic Colonels is not really a rivalry anymore because it’s been one-sided since 2006.
Despite that, the Colonels consistently threaten the supremacy of the top-ranked Bluebirds so Highlands prepares for them intensely. That preparation added up to a second consecutive Class 4A, Region 4 championship over the fifth-ranked Colonels, 28-13 at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Friday.
The Bluebirds will battle the Lexington Catholic Knights (11-2) in the state semifinals on Friday. Highlands beat LexCath, 42-21 in the same round last year.
Highlands (12-1) defeated CovCath (9-4) for the ninth consecutive time to improve to 43-17 all-time against the arch-rivals. The Bluebirds also won both meetings against the Colonels last year and 2007 after the Colonels did the same in 2006. Highlands won the regular-season contest, 35-21 on Sept. 21.
“We have a lot of respect for CovCath,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “We knew we were never safe. We just had to keep playing (hard) every play until the end of the game. We prepare all year for (the Colonels). It means so much to their guys just like it means so much to our guys.”
The Bluebirds outgained the Colonels, 293-245. But they did a better job running the ball and did not turn the ball over to four turnovers for CovCath. Highlands scored seven points off the turnovers and took time off the clock after the other turnovers.
Highlands outgained CovCath, 136-68 on the ground. Quarterback Donovan McCoy again led the way with 31 carries for 95 yards and all four Bluebird touchdowns averaging just more than three a touch. He also completed 9-of-15 passes for 157 yards.
McCoy’s four touchdown runs went for a combined seven yards. The Highlands offensive line blocked well when the Bluebirds reverted to their full-house goal-line spread offense.
“The only thing that’s going through our mind there is getting good pushes up front,” said Jason Thome, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “That’s a great feeling when we move (defensive linemen) back. We have a number of linemen that rotate it so it keeps us fresh.”
McCoy completed to four different receivers. Luke Turner hauled in four passes for 73 yards and Brandon Hergott had three for 23 yards. Hergott had a key 10-yard reception on 3rd-and-8 from the Colonel 35 in the third quarter with Highlands leading just 21-13.
“I line and look for the sticks first of all,” Hergott said. “I sprint off and make it look like I’m going deep. I just had to make the catch and fall down. We get those long passes every once in a while. But we can’t rely on that. We have to rely on the short passing game to move the ball then take our shots deep.”
McCoy completed a 45-yard reception to Luke Brockett on Highlands’ first touchdown drive. When the Colonels took away the deep pass in their 3-3-5 defense, Highlands threw shorter routes.
In the last game of his record-setting career at CovCath, quarterback Blake Bir completed 18-of-28 passes for 177 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Ethan Egbers and Sam Hatter had four catches for 42 and 29 yards respectively.
“We’ve been practicing going hard against our offensive line all year,” said Gabe Schultz, Highlands senior defensive lineman. “That comes natural to get passed them and get to the quarterback as fast as we can. We stayed with our game plan and trusted our coaches. That’s how we won the game.”
But once again, CovCath could not run consistently. Bobby Beatrice had four catches for 25 yards to lead the Colonels. They had 27 carries for an average of just more than two a touch to about three a carry for the Bluebirds.
The Bluebirds defense put constant pressure on Bir. Junior defensive lineman Seth Hope recorded three sacks and forced a fumble that Reid Schroeder recovered.
The Murray brothers also had big games defensively. Brady Murray, a sophomore linebacker, recovered two fumbles and his older brother Quentin, a senior defensive back, recorded his fifth interception of the year and second against Bir.
Brady Murray recovered his first fumble to start the second half. Bir tried to hand off to his brother Luke but did not get the ball to him and Brady Murray recovered it at the Colonel 25.
“I just saw the ball rolling round and I hopped on it,” Brady Murray said. “We work on (recovering fumbles) every day (in practice). It’s scary down there (ground). Everyone is fighting for it. But I came out with it.”
The Bluebirds marched downfield and scored after six rushes. McCoy ran it in from a yard out on 1st-and-goal. Highlands led 21-7 at that point.
The Colonels responded with a touchdown. Beatrice broke free for a 16-yard touchdown and missed the extra-point kick.
But Highlands responded with another touchdown. McCoy capped off an 11-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown with 1:51 left in the third.
The Bluebird defense came through several times on third-down in the final stanza. With about six minutes left, Trevor Kraft stopped Luke Bir on a draw play at the Colonel 46 for a 5-yard loss on 3rd-and-12.
Then Brady Murray’s second fumble recovery came at the Bluebird 16. Blake Bir completed a 10-yard pass to Kyle Massey. Brady Murray tackled Massey and recovered the fumble to seal the win with 2:09 left in the game. Highlands gained a first down before kneeling out the clock.
“The key to the game was every guy on offense, defense and special team doing his best every single play,” Mueller said. “You also get that with CovCath. To beat CovCath, you need everyone on the field doing his job.”
CovCath scored on its opening possession. Blake Bir completed a 9-yard pass to Sam Dressman in the right flat to give the Colonels a 7-0 lead.
But the Bluebirds responded with a touchdown on a McCoy 1-yard run on fourth down. McCoy completed the 45-yard pass to Brockett to set up the score.
After Highlands held Covington Catholic on 4th-and-inches from the Bluebird 29, the Bluebirds drove 72 yards on eight plays starting with a 43-yard McCoy-to-Turner connection. McCoy capped it off with a 3-yard run.
The Bluebirds have won seven straight state semifinal contests. Their last loss in that round came to Rockcastle County in 2002.