G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands defenders Joey Cochran (24) and Bo Hebel (55) converge on Paducah Tilghman running back D.J. Sherrill (25) in Saturday's game in Paducah. The Bluebirds travel to Park Hills on Saturday to face the Covington Catholic Colonels at 1 p.m.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It was a nice, clear summer day in early August.
The Highlands Bluebirds senior captains led warm-ups before a practice. During that time, they shouted the familiar “Beat Colonels” phrase.
That’s how much that annual game against Class 4A, District 7 arch-rival Covington Catholic means to the Bluebirds. Highlands faces its longtime rival Saturday in Park Hills at 1 p.m.
The two Northern Kentucky powers have battled for state championships since the 1980s. Highlands is tied with Louisville Trinity for the most state championships with 22 and CovCath owns six.“It isn’t all that intense,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “We spend more time and focus on CovCath. Most weeks in practice are primarily geared to improving as a team. This week, it’s about CovCath.”
Highlands has won nine in a row in the series dating back to 2006 during their run of a state-record six consecutive state championships and 92-3 mark since the start of 2007. The Colonels are the last team to beat Highlands in the playoffs on their way to their last state championship in 2006.
Highlands is 43-17 in the all-time series against Covington Catholic. That includes wins in both the regular season and playoffs in its title runs in 2007, 2011 and last year. Last year, Highlands beat CovCath twice in Fort Thomas – 35-21 in the regular-season and 28-13 in the regional championship.
“We’re going through our normal routines practicing everything and during the game, I bet everything will get emotional,” said Evan Allen, Highlands senior wide receiver. “When the game starts, our nerves will get going. But we have mature guys and we know what to do in a big game.”
Highlands comes into the game undefeated at 5-0 while the Colonels are 3-1. They had a bye week last week after beating Henderson County, 18-0. CovCath’s lone loss came to Cincinnati Moeller, 45-7 on Sept. 7. Moeller won Ohio’s largest Division I state championship last year and is the alma mater of CovCath Head Coach Dave Wirth.
“We spent very little time last week on Highlands,” Wirth said. “We just worked on fundamentals and healing up as much as we could. Having two weeks or two days, it’s all the same preparing for (Highland). It comes down to making plays on game day, not turning the ball over, forcing turnovers. We know them. They know us.”
The Colonels have endured their fair share of injuries. Senior running back Luke Bir is out for the season with junior quarterback Adam Wagner and senior linebacker Sam Burchell also missing games because of injuries. Burchell has yet to play.
The Colonel defense has still been strong as they have outscored the opposition, 94-58. The Colonels shut out Boone County and Henderson County. Senior defensive backs Adam Fischer and Matthew Way lead the Colonels with 27 tackles. Way also has five interceptions.
CovCath may return several three-year starters and a four-year one. But the Highlands spread attack makes teams defend the entire field. Highlands has outscored the opposition, 234-120 and outgained opponents, 2,147-1,761 in total offense.
Senior quarterback Drew Houliston continues to put up impressive numbers for the Bluebirds. Houliston has completed 90-of-131 passes for 1,547 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception.
The Bluebird offensive line has blocked well for most of the year. Houliston was sacked six times in the recent road win at Paducah Tilghman. But the Bluebirds did not allow any in the second half making adjustments to Tilghman’s delayed blitzes.
Highlands has seen 12 different wide receivers catch passes. Junior Jensen Feggins leads the way with 20 catches for 299 yards and five touchdowns. Senior Brandon Hergott is third on the team with 10 receptions for 156 yards and five touchdowns.
The Bluebirds rested senior running back Zach Harris against Tilghman. But he has 362 yards rushing on 47 attempts with eight touchdowns and 14 receptions for 233 yards and five touchdowns.
Highlands showed its depth in that game at Tilghman. Fellow senior running back Jaylen Hayes rushed for 154 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. His season total is 232 yards rushing on 37 carries and three scores.
Highlands may have the mental advantage coming into the game. But Wirth never seems concerned about that.
“We have lots of rivals, not just one,” Wirth said. “So, when it comes to each one, we don’t care about last year or even next year. That’s fodder for pre-game parties and press. We only care about this game this week. So we handle it as we would any other game – just keep fighting, make a stop, make a play, etc. Our players don’t sign up at CovCath for the sake of one game. There are several games that get their blood pumping a little faster. Obviously, Highlands is one of them.”
The injuries have forced the Colonels to play at lot of sophomores, especially at the skill position spots in their Spread offense. Sophomore Ben Dressman has stepped in for Adam Wagner and with classmates Ben Darlington and Ryan McGinness stepping forward at running back and wide receiver respectively.
“We just have to line up right and take good angles at the ball hoping they don’t get behind us,” said Griffin Urlage, Highlands junior defensive back. “We want to keep them in front of us on the screens and play fast and aggressive.”
Ben Dressman has completed 21-of-34 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Sam Dressman leads the Colonel rushing attack with 197 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns and senior Sam Hatter leads CovCath with eight catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
“We are all excited about being involved in such a tremendous rivalry game,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “As always, we will continue to improve each day at everything we do. It should be a fun atmosphere on Saturday.”
The Highlands defense has bent a couple times this year, but has come through in many clutch situations. Urlange and Rocco Pangallo lead the Bluebirds with one interception each. Seth Hope leads Highlands with four tackles for a loss with Thomas Wrobleski making 3.5 and Brady Murray and Joey Cochran recording three each. Braden Hicks, Bo Hebel and Hope have on sack each.
CovCath will become the fourth most common school opponent in school history after this game. The Bluebirds entered the season having played CovCath and Dayton 60 times in school history. They’ve only faced Covington Holmes (71), Dixie Heights (70) and Newport (66) more than CovCath and Dayton.