By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It may be a case of playoff rewind from last year in its third year playing in Class 4A.
But the Highlands Bluebirds football team is once again dominating those same opponents. Top-ranked 11-1 Highlands did basically what it wanted the entire game in a 56-6 second-round victory over the Ashland Tomcats on Friday at David Cecil Memorial Field.
“You really can see that it is the playoffs. The guys were so ready to play,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “They just executed the offense and defense so well pretty much every play. It was great play by basically everybody that got out on the field.”
After smashing Boyd County and Ashland in the first two rounds at the same location as last year, Highlands earned another 2012 playoff rematch in the same round against the arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels (10-2) on Friday. The Bluebirds beat the Colonels, 28-13 for the regional title last year and have won 10 straight in the series including a 42-6 win in Park Hills on Sept. 28.
Highlands could easily play the same five playoff opponents as last year. The Bluebirds beat Lexington Catholic in the state semifinals and Collins in the title game last year. Lexington Catholic faces Mercer County for the Region 3 title next week and Collins takes on North Oldham for the Region 2 crown.
Highlands improved to 98-4 since the start of 2007 and won its state-record 32nd straight playoff game. The Bluebirds have outscored those opponents by 1,115 points for an average of about 35 a game.
Highlands outgained Ashland, 413-38 in total offense and gained 16 first downs to six for the visitors. Drew Houliston once again led Highlands offensively completing 13-of-16 passes for 243 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Austin Hergott completed both his passes for 28 yards.
The Highlands offensive line once again showed how effective the offseason conditioning program pays off. The Bluebirds allowed no quarterback sacks.
“We just run and lift (a lot) to get in shape,” said John Abner, Highlands junior offensive lineman. “That’s what makes us good.”
Jensen Feggins and Alex Veneman had three catches each for Highlands. Feggins had 60 yards and a touchdown and Veneman had 39 yards and two scores. Evan Allen followed with two catches for 64 yards and Mitchell Cain had 25 yards and a touchdown to go with his first two catches of the year.
“(Wide receiver) is a hard spot to play,” Cain said. “There are so many people that are great players. You just have to wait your turn and you’ll get your chance eventually. They you have to show what you got.”
Defensively, Highlands faced a Pistol-formation option offense. The Tomcats like to fake or hand off up the middle before quarterback Hunter Prince goes outside and either keeps it or pitches to the running back.
Ashland played without sophomore running back Quentin Baker. He was out sick and the Tomcats missed his 1,604 yards of rushing on 185 carries and 17 touchdowns.
The only Ashland touchdown of the game came by sophomore Jake Long. Long scored on a 7-yard run with 8:33 left in the game on a run around the right side. Long appeared in just his second game after transferring over the Ohio River from Ironton (Ohio).
“We planned for the option,” said Kyle Martin, Highlands junior defensive back. “We just have a game plan where one person has the quarterback and one person has the running back. We read our keys and contain them. We found out before the game that (Baker) wasn’t playing. But we still played the same way.”
Highlands had 9.5 tackles for a loss, a sack and recovered three Ashland fumbles while turning it over just once. Joey Kruse, Jacob Noe and Rocco Pangallo had fumble recoveries with Matt Gall, Braden Hicks and Brady Murray all recording two tackles for a loss each. Seth Hope and Kruse also combined to sack Prince.
The Bluebirds hit the running clock with 7:12 left in the second quarter. That’s when Cain had a 12-yard pass from Houliston.
They jumped out to a 29-0 lead after the first quarter. Veneman had 18 and 23-yard scores with Weyer and Feggins scoring from 12 and 25 yards out respectively. Brandon Hergott recorded the two-point conversion after Veneman’s second score.
Highlands led 42-0 at halftime scoring on all six possessions. Nick Kendall scored on a 12-yard run. He finished with 70 yards rushing as the Bluebirds rested senior running backs Zach Harris and Jaylen Hayes.
The Bluebirds scored once in each of the final two quarters. Joey Kruse returned a fumble 22 yards for a score with 5:01 remaining in the third and James Grau scored from nine yards out with 3:34 left in the game.
Highlands only found itself in third-and-long twice and converted on one of them. Ashland converted 2-of-8 on third down and once on fourth.