Sunday, October 12, 2014

Did the home-field advantage once again help Highlands?

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands senior defensive lineman Daniel Kremer (22) goes for a tackle while Rocco Pangallo (17) follows closeby in Saturday's game against Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus.
Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands quarterback Beau Hoge (7) scores on a sweep in the fourth quarter while Nick Kendall (8) blocks in Saturday's game against Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus. Hoge completed 24-of-38 passes for 330 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

The Highlands Bluebirds hoped to use that same home advantage that has helped them over the years. They entered Saturday’s game with a sparkling 59-1 record at David Cecil Memorial Stadium since the start of 2007.

But the Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus Explorers became the second team to win there during that time with a 38-34 victory. The other loss came 38-24 to Cincinnati Elder on Oct. 19, 2012. The Bluebirds have not lost to a Kentucky team at home since Covington Catholic did it by a 29-27 on Oct. 27, 2006 when Kurt Bovard caught a last-second touchdown pass.

“The ultimate goal is to get better every week,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “In the first half, we weren’t better than we were last week. By the end of the game, I think we got better at some stuff. Some guys stepped up on offense and defense. We had a lot of injuries coming into the game. The ultimate thing is to get ready for the playoffs. If we step on the field, we want to win the game.”

The Explorers flew to Northern Kentucky unlike University Christian of Jacksonville, which rode up on busses last year. The Bluebirds had not played anyone outside Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana before University Christian came to Fort Thomas last year. The distance between Christopher Columbus and Highlands High schools is 1,138 miles. That is the furthest any team has even traveled to Fort Thomas to play a game.

Explorer Head Coach and former Indiana University safety Chris Merritt had been wanting to bring the Explorers to the Midwest for some time. The 1992 IU grad is from Bloomington (Ind.). He took the players to see the Greater Catholic League battle between Cincinnati LaSalle and St. Xavier on Friday that the Bombers won 24-21.

Both teams hope to use this game for experience in the playoffs. Christopher Columbus still has to qualify for the largest Class 8A playoffs having gone 2-0 in the six-team District 14-8A so far while Highlands automatically qualifies in 4A. The top two teams in each of 8A’s 16 districts make the playoffs in Florida. Merritt said the Explorers would have to go on the road in tough environments in the third and fourth rounds.

“We are the Highlands High School of Dade County. We have similar demographics with our kids,” Merritt said. “We have maybe some more athletic kids. They’re very disciplined. That’s what we bank our success off in Dade County. We are the underdog team constantly. That’s the reason that part of the country is what it is when it comes to college recruiting and the NFL players they have down there.”

A number of the Explorers had not been on a plan before. Christopher Columbus offensive guard Matthew Deville said he chewed gum as the plan rose into the air to alleviate the air pressure.

“At first, it was a little nerve-racking,” Deville said. “As the plane took off and we were in the air, it was quite calm and soothing. As we got here, it was nice landing here in a different environment. It was a good change in scenery from Miami.”

Christopher Columbus quarterback Tucker Beirne had previously played in cold weather. He recently moved from Colorado to Miami. Beirne said his teammates were concerned the game might be played in 30-degree weather. But it turned out to be a nice day in the 60s.

Beirne faced Highlands quarterback Beau Hoge in an all-star game in Canton (Ohio) in 2011. They both wear number 7.

“When that much time passes away and you come back and play someone you’ve spent some time with, that’s kind of a cool opportunity that not many people get to do,” Beirne said. “(The Bluebirds) are amazing. There’s a reason they have 22 state championships and are the second-winningest program in (the country). But we play a little bit of a different brand of football down there. It’s a little bit faster and bigger. South Florida has the most (NCAA) Division I recruits of anywhere and it shows. For me, it was like playing back (in Colorado). It was good to play in the cold again.”

It is obviously not cheap to fly. But Merritt said the Explorers had some help from benefactors and did some fund raising.

“I wasn’t telling nine, 10 kids they couldn’t go on a trip,” Merritt said. “I didn’t tell my president (Brother Kevin Handibode) that yet. We’re going to take the win, go home, get him in a good mood and maybe I’ll take him out to dinner and say we went about $5,000 over budget.”

Bouncing Back:

The Bluebirds are still 106-6 since the start of 2007. They have not lost consecutive games since dropping two in a row to Cincinnati Elder and Louisville St. Xavier On Sept. 1 and 9, 2006 respectively.

Highlands has won the next contest following a loss with wins by an average of 30 points. The Bluebirds edged Warren Central, 71-69 to finish last season after dropping a tough 30-27 contest at Cincinnati Elder.

The Bluebirds hope to do it playing more like they did in the second half. They outscored Christopher Columbus, 27-10 in that half.

“I hope we keep playing with the intensity we did. It would have been easy just to give up being down 28-7,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “But we kept fighting and that’s what we ask of our guys. I’m not taking anything away from (the Explorers). They’re going to win a lot of games. They’re big and physical.”

Injury Report:

Highlands had some players go down in the game. Junior defensive lineman Tyler Robinson went down in the first half and came out in crutches in the second half.

Senior tight end Jack Telek hold out hope he might return despite a torn right anterior cruciated ligament. He’s been encouraging his teammates during that time.

Last unbeaten in 4A:

With the Highlands loss, Johnson Central remains the lone undefeated team in Class 4A. The Golden Eagles moved to 7-0 and 2-0 in District 8-4A action with a 42-0 blanking of Greenup County in Paintsville on Friday.

The Golden Eagles have two tough games remaining. They play host to Ashland Blazer on Oct. 24 and defending Class 3A state champion Belfry on Oct. 31.

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