By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
CINCINNATI – The Highlands Bluebirds football team has lost some tough ones to the Cincinnati Elder Panthers through the years.
But Friday’s 30-27 defeat at The Pit may be the toughest one to swallow. The vaunted Highlands spread offense received the ball twice down by that score but could not find the end zone like it normally does.
“We got down twice and they came right back,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “There was no quit whatsoever. We’re disappointed we lost that game, but you saw the character of the Highlands football players right there. It was a game where with every play we could have done something different. But in the end, they beat us by three and they deserved to win the game.”
Highlands matched up better with Elder in the trenches offensively and defensively. But the Panthers (7-2) made a few more plays to beat the Bluebirds (8-1) and gain some important points in the Ohio playoff picture.
Highlands is still an impressive 95-4 since the start of 2007 and 850-226-26 in school history, but is 1-2 against Elder during that time. The Panthers ended a 28-game Highlands winning streak with last year’s 38-24 win in Fort Thomas. Highlands had won 14 straight since then.
The Bluebirds dropped to 1-6 in the all-time series against the Panthers with the lone win coming two years ago at Elder. If Class 4A’s top-ranked Highlands goes on to win another state championship, this will mark the fifth time in school history the Panthers have handed the Bluebirds their lone loss of the season.
This tied the closest margin of victory for Elder. The Panthers nipped the Bluebirds, 21-18 in Fort Thomas in 2006.
Elder outgained Highlands, 384-316 in total offense. The Panthers converted several third-and-longs to keep drives alive that led to scores. They converted 6-of-13 for 46 percent on third-down and 1-of-2 on fourth for 50 percent. The Bluebirds made 6-of-14 on third and 1-of-4 on fourth.
Highlands received the ball at its own 42 with 3:26 left in the game. Zach Harris ran 11 yards to the Elder 47 before going another two. On second down following a holding call that moved Highlands back 15 yards based on the spot of the foul, quarterback Drew Houliston fired one downfield for Alex Veneman. Veneman appeared to catch it, but the back judge ruled it hit the ground.
Then on third down, Elder sacked Houliston for a five-yard loss. Houliston came out with an injury at that point and junior Beau Hoge came in at quarterback. The Bluebirds did not convert on 4th-and-28.
Highlands did get the ball back at its own 30 with 57 seconds left when Highlands senior defensive back Jackson Bardo picked off his second pass of the game. His other interception came in the end zone with 1:09 left in the second quarter to stop an Elder drive. But the Bluebirds missed all four pass attempts giving the ball back to the Panthers, who knelt down to end the game.
The Bluebirds never did lead in the game. Elder sophomore quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 17-of-24 passes for 221 yards. His top targets were Andrew Sportsman with five catches for 113 yads and Austin Cipriani with seven catches for 78 yards. Ramsey also ran for 67 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown.
Highlands did a much better job containing running back Chris Schroer this year. He had 94 yards rushing on 28 carries and a touchdown. He ran for 259 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s game in Fort Thomas.
“They have a really good offense,” Mueller said. “(Schroer) is a heck of a player and their quarterback is a heck of a player. You really can’t key on just one guy with them.”
Houliston finished with 279 yards passing completing 21-of-36 attempts. Jensen Feggins led the Bluebirds with 10 catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns with Zach Harris gaining 77 yards on 15 rushes.
The Panthers did put constant pressure on Houliston. He had nine carries for a minus-40 yards rushing. Houliston had ice put on his shoulder after the game.
Elder led 7-0 after the first quarter. Ramey found tight end Devin Pike for a 4-yard score with 2:59 left in the quarter. The Panthers extended the margin to 14-0 in the second when Schroer scored from two yards out with 9:51 left in the quarter.
But the Bluebirds rallied to tie the game at 14 at halftime. Houliston found Feggins for a 7-yard score with six minutes left in the second on fourth down and Harris scored on a 3-yard draw with 23 seconds left in the half.
The start of the second half hurt Highlands. After the Bluebirds went three-and-out, Ramsey scored on a 35-yard run and on the next Highlands offensive play, Elder senior defensive end Dustin Applegate recovered a Bluebird fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. The Panthers missed the extra-point attempt after the first score.
“It was a draw,” Mueller said of the fumble. “The exchange got messed up.”
But Highlands responded with a score. Harris scored from four yards out to trim the margin to 27-21 with 6:40 left in the quarter.
Elder did drive down and make a field goal with three seconds left in the third. Matt Murray hit a 23-yarder that turned out to be the difference in the game.
Following an exchange of turnovers, Highlands scored with 5:13 remaining. Houliston hit Feggins for a nine-yard score.
The Bluebirds conclude the season Friday against Warren Central near Bowling Green. Game time is 7:30 p.m. in Fort Thomas.