Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The annual football district matchup with the Covington Catholic Colonels may be the most circled game on the calendars of the Highlands Bluebirds players and coaches for a long time.
But this year, this Friday’s game at The Pit against the Cincinnati Elder Panthers (6-2) may have been circled almost, if not as many times for a big reason. The Panthers are one of just three teams to beat the undefeated 8-0 Bluebirds during a 95-3 run since the start of 2007. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
“It definitely prepares us for the playoffs,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “Playing a game at Elder is more than a state championship atmosphere. It’s more of a state championship than the actual state championship game. We’re not going there because we want the great experience. We’re looking to go there to win the football game. There have been a lot of good football teams at Highlands High School. We want to be recognized as possibly the best there’s ever been. We’re not that unless we go 15-0. All the best teams at Highlands High School have been undefeated.”
Highlands owns a Kentucky record 13 undefeated seasons including three during the run. That trend says this year the Bluebirds are due for another one based on the fact those three unbeaten seasons have come during odd years.
But the Panthers of the vaunted Greater Catholic League South have often had a say in whether Highlands goes undefeated or not including the last two years. Elder handed Highlands its lone loss last year by a 38-24 count in Fort Thomas. The Panthers also handed the Bluebirds their lone defeats during the 1999, 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
Highlands did break through and beat Elder for the first time in school history in six tries with a 34-29 victory at the Pit two years ago on its way to its last undefeated season. Quarterback Donovan McCoy, playing for the injured Patrick Towles, hit David Christian for a touchdown in the final minutes for a 34-29 victory.
Elder used its size on the offensive line to pound Chris Schroer between the tackles for an average of 5.8 a carry and keep the vaunted Highlands offense off the field in last year’s win. Schroer finished with 259 yards rushing on 45 carries and all five Panther touchdowns.
“Last year after they beat us, we completely changed what we did before practice,” said Nathan Merkle, Highlands senior defensive linelman. “We stopped watching film and started lifting weights more. That’s helped us be physically superior against every team we’ve played offensively and defensively. We hope it pays off against Elder too.”
Merkle said key to facing bigger lineman is staying low. Joey Cochran leads Highlands with six tackles for a loss and Seth Hope leads the Bluebirds with 2.5 sacks. Highlands defensive back Griffin Urlage owns a team-high two interceptions.
Schroer leads Elder with 727 yards rushing on 197 carries and 11 touchdowns despite missing some time because of injuries. But the emergence of sophomore quarterback Peyton Ramsey has helped the Panthers.
Ramsey has completed 104-of-167 passes for 1,172 yards and seven touchdowns. Senior Austin Cipriani leads Elder with 38 catches for 445 yards and four scores with senior tight end Devin Pike making 25 for 300 yards and a score.
“They’ll pack it in tight and run it and they’ll spread it out and throw the ball,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “Honestly, I think one of their best weapons is (Peyton Ramsey) – the coach’s son. He’s really improved as the season has gone along. He’s a good athlete who makes good decisions. They’re not scared to run him. He’s about as good of a quarterback as we’ve faced this year.”
Elder has outscored opponents just 168-167 on the season. The Panthers won their first three games and own a 23-10 over longtime league rival Cincinnati St. Xavier. They rebounded from a 35-14 loss to defending Division I champion Cincinnati Moeller with a 23-19 win over Cincinnati Winton Woods on Friday. Elder’s other loss came to Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward, 44-7 on Sept. 21 at John Carroll University in the Cleveland (Ohio) suburb of Berea.
The Panthers employ a 4-3 defense. Elder’s leading tackler is junior linebacker Kyle Orloff. He has 68 stops.
“It’ll be the best team we play all year,” Mueller said. “They take football seriously at Elder. Everyone that goes on the field is a good football player. They’re not going to have a weak spot and our 11 guys have to compete with their 11 guys every play. That’s why we like to play Elder. We like to play Elder five times a season because it’s such a good football game.”
Highlands senior wide receiver Luke Brockett said the Panthers employ many different defensive looks like Man-to-Man, Three-Deep and Four-Deep coverages. Senior defensive back Johnny Lammers leads Elder with three interceptions.
“Elder is a team we have to prepare for more than just one week,” Brockett said. “Anything we’ve done in the past, we have to get better at. Any GCL secondary (players) are going to be playing their best.”
But the vaunted Highlands offense has carved up good defenses many times over the years. This year’s version averages 53 points and 439 yards of offense per game including about 342 in the air to go with 61 touchdowns.
Quarterback Drew Houliston has completed 137-of-190 passes for 2,423 yards, 33 touhdowns and just one interception. Jensen Feggins leads all Highlands receivers with 26 catches for 487 yards and seven touchdowns. Senior Zach Harris leads Highlands with 493 yards rushing on 64 carries to go with 12 touchdowns.
If the game comes down to a last-second field goal, sophomore Jared Dougherty has been clutch all year making 49-of-50 extra-point attempts while missing his lone field-goal try. Dougherty does not have many field-goal tries because Highlands has scored touchdowns on 30-of-33 trips into the opposing red zone.
Highlands concludes the regular season against Warren Central on Nov. 1. The Bluebirds will then open the Class 4A playoffs against Boyd County or Greenup County the following week.