Thursday, September 11, 2014

Highlands welcomes John Hardin for season home opener

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands offensive linemen Matt Gall (71), Evan Richardson (74) and Bo Hebel (55) get out of their stances while running back Josh Watson (28) watches. The Bluebirds play host to John Hardin on Friday.

By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

The Highlands Bluebirds football team has many reasons to be relieved to be coming home Friday for three straight games.

The Bluebirds escaped the road contest at Lexington Bryan Station, 47-41 last week to move to 2-0. They could easily be the opposite if various plays go against them in that game or the season-opening 23-16 win at Campbell County.

It has generally not been an issue in the past. But Highlands needs to be on guard in the first two home games. They could be considered trap games based on the 0-3 records of those opponents entering the week in the John Hardin Bulldogs this week and the Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado the following week before longtime arch-rival Covington Catholic comes to town. John Hardin and Paducah Tilghman come to Cecil Memorial Stadium for the first time ever after Highlands played at their places for the first time last year.

The Bluebird coaches emphasize improvement each and every practice and game. Highlands has done that with each game and scrimmage in a number of ways.

“That’s the reason we’re here every day,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “If you’re not here to get better, go do something else. It’s been exciting to sit there and watch our spring film then our first week of practice. We’re trying to pick one thing for each guy to get better at. If the guys get better at one thing, we’ll be pretty good before it’s all said.”

The Bluebirds held on for a 33-26 victory over the Bulldogs in Elizabethtown last year. It took Zach Harris recovering an onside kick to seal the win for Highlands in what was now-retired Head Coach Dale Mueller’s 300th career win.

John Hardin has advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals in each of the past six years. But the Bulldogs have only been able to advance to the state championship once in 2009. Highlands beat John Hardin, 35-7 in the state title game that season.

The Bulldogs lost to three-time 5A champion Bowling Green the past three seasons in that round. That includes a 33-28 loss to the Purples in Bowling Green last year. But they graduated 25 players from that team including quarterback Patrick Anderson and defensive lineman Matt Elam, who is now playing for the University of Kentucky.

“We are playing several young kids this year, so we are going through some growing pains,” said Chad Lewis, second-year John Hardin Head Coach. “Our kids have shown great effort and are working extremely hard. Our sophomores didn’t have the chance to develop at the (junior varsity) level this year because they are playing on Friday night. We can’t afford mistakes because we are not good enough to overcome too many in a game. We must cut down on turnovers.”

Despite the rough start, John Hardin has been in two of the games. The Bulldogs lost 27-25 to last year’s Class 6A runner-up Meade County last week failing on a two-point conversion attempt after scoring with 48.9 seconds left. They opened the season with a 24-19 home loss to Louisville Seneca before dropping a 45-13 decision at Central Hardin.

Highlands is beating teams by an average of 35-28.5. The Bluebirds are outgaining opponents, 461.5-374.5 in total offense. They exploded for 352 yards rushing and 225 passing in the win at Bryan Station.

Bluebird senior quarterback Beau Hoge has given defenses fits with his arm and legs. Hoge has completed 28-of-51 passes for 408 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He also leads the team rushing for 201 yards on 22 carries and five touchdowns. That includes an impressive 60-yard run against Bryan Station.

“We have to worry about us getting better right now,” Lewis said. “Obviously, (Beau) Hoge is a great player and is probably one of the top quarterbacks in the state. He is a great runner and throws the ball well. He hurt Bryan Station running the ball.”

Seniors Griffin Urlage, Josh Watson and junior Nick Kendall got in on the rushing act against the Defenders. Urlage is second on the team with 159 yards rushing on 31 carries. But running proper fakes is also a key to a successful running game.

“We have so many fresh legs in the backfield so we can keep running (the ball),” said James Grau, Highlands senior running back. “But then when they don’t see it, hit them deep for a big play. It’s vital (to carry out fakes as a running) because if you don’t, it’s like missing a block. (Defenders) won’t see you and will go right to the play.”

The Highlands offensive line created a lot of lanes and gave Hoge plenty of time against Bryan Station. Senior Alex Veneman leads the Bluebirds with nine catches for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Mitch Cain has five catches for 83 yards. Highlands hopes to catch the ball better this week after several drops last week.

“It’s been a focus every day. Even in January, we’re throwing and catching, throwing and catching, throwing and catching,” Weinrich said. “No one drops the ball on purpose. They’re trying hard. A couple of the balls were where the receivers turned around and the sun was directly in their eyes. We’ve had a great week so far.”

The Bluebirds will face a 4-4 John Hardin defense. Bulldog senior linebacker Maleek Moody anchors the defense. He had 10 tackles in the loss to Seneca.

The Bluebird 3-4 defense wants to improve on third-down situations this week. The Defenders converted several third-and-longs.

“We were able to find some guys to help us out in spots,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “We’re just trying to get better every game. Some of the plays we gave up were our fault. We didn’t play it well in some situations, but ultimately found a way to win the game. We’re working to get better at everything we do.”

Senior linebacker Brady Murray leads Highlands with 3.5 tackles for a loss totaling nine yards. Senior defensive lineman D.J. Mills and junior Luke Lindeman have one sack each. Senior defensive back Andrew Abner recorded the game-sealing interception against Bryan Station and senior linebacker Patrick Schoepf recovered a fumble against Campbell County.

Highlands will face a double-slot John Hardin Wing-T offense. The Bulldog quarterback is junior Shay Stone and his top target against Seneca was senior Eric Piernas. They had a number of players carry the ball in that game.

“It’s real important (to stay disciplined) this week because they run a lot of plays a few times where they’ll go one way then cut back,” said Jared Dougherty, Highlands junior linebacker. “They’re looking for you to start cheating. We have to key our guards and pay attention to what’s going on. We can’t get lost.”

But Lewis said the Bulldogs hope to pass the ball more this year. They came within a touchdown last year throwing some passes.

“They have a shotgun formation they like to pass out of,” Jones said. “They also do a nice job sucking you in and getting the passes out. You can tell they’re getting better each game.”

Highlands is 4-0 all-time against teams from Hardin County. The Bluebirds own a 2-0 record against Elizabethtown.

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