By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The exclamation point to another undisputed football district championship came with the usual mighty Highlands Bluebird roar Friday.
Class 4A’s top-ranked and undefeated 8-0 Bluebirds continued their domination of Class 4A, District 7 opponents with another convincing 71-14 victory over the Covington Holmes Bulldogs. Highlands outscored its three district opponents, 190-20 and hit the 70-point mark for the second straight game after posting 77 on Harrison County two weeks ago.
The Bluebirds own 17 district championships in the last 18 years. The only time they have not won it since 1996 came in 2006 when Covington Catholic beat Highlands on a last-second touchdown.
The Bluebirds also once again beat their average margin of victory with the 57-point win forcing the running clock with 10:32 left in the second quarter. They came into the game outscoring non-Covington Catholic district opponents by an average of about 49.4 points per game since the start of 2007 including the playoffs. That margin increased to about 49.7 after the Bluebirds improved to 21-0 against non-CovCath district opponents during that time. Highlands is also 10-0 against CovCath bringing their overall record to 31-0 against district opponents during that same time.
Holmes dropped to 5-3 overall and 1-1 in district play. But the Bulldogs had not faced a team as talented as the Bluebirds this year. Holmes takes on Covington Catholic on Oct. 26 for the district’s second seed. The winner earns a home playoff game in the first round and avoids a potential second-round trip to Fort Thomas.
Highlands obliterated the stat sheet racking up 450 yards of offense compared to 98 for Holmes. That included a 354-123 domination through the air.
Senior quarterback Drew Houliston led Highlands completing 18-of-23 passes for 320 yards and five touchdowns behind another strong performance by the offensive line. Evan Allen led Highlands with five catches for 106 yards and a score and Alex Veneman had two for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was just another great game for (Houliston),” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “The receivers were running great routes and getting open. The linemen were keeping people off him. It was another step forward.”
Highlands rushed the ball 20 times for 96 yards. Allen also led Highlands on the ground rushing the ball once for 43 yards and Austin Hergott followed with two carries for 42 yards.
Zach Harris usually leads Highlands in the rushing department. He had just one carry for a 30-yard touchdown with 7:29 left in the first quarter. The Bluebirds led 15-0 at that point after Houliston completed the two-point conversion to Luke Brockett.
The Highlands offensive line knew it had to contain Holmes junior 6-foot-2-inch, 315-pound junior defensive lineman Breandon Johnson. Johnson did get in the backfield a couple times against the Highlands offensive line.
“Staying low is the most you can do, especially if he’s bigger than you,” said Matt Walkenhorst, Highlands senior tight end. “You have to keep him from the inside. That’s about all you can do.”
The Bluebird defense did its part holding the Bulldogs to minus-25 rushing. Holmes played without injured senior running back Jonathan Scruggs. Scruggs has rushed for 1,004 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year.
Turnovers played a big part in the win. The Bulldogs threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles compared to one lost fumble for the Bluebirds. Brady Murray, Joey Kruse and Grayson Heck intercepted passes for Highlands and Rocco Pangallo had a fumble recovery.
“We really do try to get better every week,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “They’re understanding each other and the big picture. We’re getting better as individuals so they’re creating a better unit. We want to do better next week than we did this week.”
Holmes sophomore quarterback Desean Brumfield completed 12-of-29 passes for 123 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions for Holmes. Andrew Arnold led the Bulldogs with six catches for 56 yards.
“We just got our keys and kept pressuring (Brumfield) to where he couldn’t throw it,” said D.J. Mills, Highlands junior defensive lineman. “The corners (leveraged) him inside.”
The Bluebirds led 29-0 after the first quarter scoring on 4-of-5 possessions. Houliston completed an 8-yard pass to Harris. Then after Harris’ second touchdown, Houliston found Beau Hoge for a 14-yard score before running it in from six yards out.
Houliston then found Veneman for an 84-yard score after the teams exchanged turnovers to start the second quarter. That made the score 36-0 Bluebirds after Jared Dougherty made the extra-point attempt.
Dougherty has been excellent in PATs this year. He made 9-of-9 against Holmes after making all 11 attempts against Harrison County. Dougherty has made 49-of-50 tries for 98 percent this year.
The Bluebirds scored three more touchdowns in the final 5:56 of the first half to go up 57-0. Houliston hit Veneman and Allen for 12 and 42-yard scores respectively and Kruse returned an interception 21 yards for the touchdown.
Both teams played an even second half as Highlands played many of its reserves. Hergott scored on a 44-yard touchdown run for the Bluebirds before throwing an 11-yard strike to junior Cashel Coughlan in the fourth quarter.
“We have a lot of fast players that get downfield and Drew (Houliston) throws the ball in the air to where the receivers can get (the ball),” Coughlan said. “In practice, we work a lot on the routes and just try to get faster, open and better at catching it. We have a lot of guys that can play a lot of different positions.”
Brumfield threw both touchdown passes in the third for Holmes. They were 16 and 45-yard strikes to Dakota Garvey and Fred Warlaw respectively.
Highlands can now turn its attention to 6-2 Cincinnati Elder in its final road regular season contest. Elder is coming in off a 23-19 win at Winton Woods.
“(Coach) Weinrich has us ready to go for Elder,” said Daniel Kremer, Highlands junior linebacker. “We’ve really picked it up (defensively) these past couple weeks because he knows that they’re going to be a really good team.”
The Panthers handed the Bluebirds their lone loss in the last three years, 38-24 in Fort Thomas last year. Game time is 7:30 p.m. at The Pit.