Thursday, October 9, 2014

Which highly-rated Florida football team comes to Fort Thomas on Saturday?

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands senior defensive lineman D.J. Mills (42) and junior linebacker Conner Welsch (5) get in on a tackle in the recent game against Covington Catholic. Highlands battles Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus on Saturday in Fort Thomas.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

A lot of non-surprising hype came with their first-ever meeting against a team from the Sunshine State to open last season.

The then six-time defending state champion Highlands Bluebirds welcomed the defending Florida Class 2A champion University Christian Fighting Christians from Jacksonville to Fort Thomas in a nationally-televised game. But the game did not live up to the buzz. The Bluebirds pulled away from the worn-down Fighting Christians for a 47-17 victory.

The visitors from even further south into Florida this Saturday look to put up more of a fight in the game that starts at 1 p.m. The Christopher Columbus Explorers from Miami fly in to town with a sparkling 5-1 record and a ranking of eighth in Florida’s largest Class 8A in the latest Associated Press poll.

“If you like high school football, this will be a great game to come to,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “They’re a great, great football team. They have guys everywhere. They execute at a high level.”

The Explorers finished 7-5 last year losing in the second round of the playoffs to District 14-8A rival Coral Gables after starting the season 1-4 and losing three of those games by a total of 10 points. They are the only private high school that competes in 8A.

Their head coach is Bloomington (Ind.) native Chris Merritt. Merritt played football for the Indiana Hoosiers in the early 1990s. Columbus jumped on the opportunity when Highlands announced the opening on its schedule on ListProc after University Christian could not return to Fort Thomas.

“I’ve wanted for a long time to take these kids to another part of the country to experience high school football in the Midwest,” Merritt said. “Many of our kids have never been on a plane much less met another player from another state. Playing a team with their tradition can only make us better. I was unaware they were the second-winningest team in the country (at 861-227-26 in school history). That is only going to make the trip that much more meaningful.”

Columbus enters the game off a 61-7 win over Miami Beach on Monday in 87-degree weather. Bad weather forced the game’s postponement on Thursday.

On the home side, the undefeated Bluebirds (6-0) come in off a 46-13 District 7-4A win at Harrison County moving one step closer to their 18th district championship in 19 years.

Highlands has outscored opponents, 256-101 on the season. The Bluebirds are outgaining the opposition by an average of 462.2-313.8 yards per game. They face a team that has outscored opponents, 190-109.

The Bluebirds hope to use their home of David Cecil Memorial Stadium to their advantage where they’ve lost just once since 2006. The weather may also favor Highlands as it is predicted to be between 43 and 61 degrees.

Both teams run spread offenses. Senior quarterback Beau Hoge leads the Highlands attack. Hoge has completed 97-of-146 passes for 1,527 yards and 18 touchdowns to go with two interceptions. He has also rushed for 325 yards on 39 carries with 10 touchdowns. Hoge spread the ball out well in the win over Harrison County.

Senior Griffin Urlage leads the Highlands running backs with 371 yards on 65 carries and two touchdowns. Fellow senior Josh Watson ranks third on the team with 248 yards on 59 carries and three touchdowns. They’ve enjoyed solid protection from the offensive line led by senior Kyler Dalton and Lou Bunning.

Hoge and junior backup quarterback Austin Hergott have completed passes to 13 different wide receivers. Senior Alex Veneman leads the way with 35 catches for 654 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior Mitch Cain is second with 18 catches for 292 yards and three touchdowns and senior Cashel Coughlan ranks third with 11 receptions for 117 yards.

“They’re an extremely sound defense,” Weinrich said. “They’re the best defense we’ll have seen this year in terms of executing. You can’t get them out of position. They run to the ball well. They get off tackles well. They keep their leverage. Every single play we run has to be executed well for it to be successful.”

The Bluebirds want to do better converting third and fourth-down opportunities. They have completed 32-of-66 on third for 48 percent and 7-of-19 on fourth for 37 percent.

Columbus’ lone loss came on Sept. 18, 42-14 to Class 6A’s second-ranked Miami Central Rockets. Central junior quarterback Jerrod Thomas completed 12-of-15 passes for 211 yards in the win. The Rockets took a 35-0 halftime lead prompting the mercy-rule running clock in the second half.

“Miami Central is a very talented football team,” Merritt said. “I will say nothing to take away from that fact. We fell they were the better team just not a 42-14 better team. We hope our kids learned what level they must perform in order to be competitive with a Top 10 national team. I was pleased with our ability to come out in the second half and play them well.”

Columbus plays a 4-3 defense. Senior Mike Montag anchors the defensive line with senior Mike Sierra and junior Bryce Handy holding things down at linebacker. Sophomore Marlin Brooks sees a lot of time at the defensive back spot.

The Highlands 3-4 defense will be challenged. But the Bluebirds have played well there lately having recorded 30 tackles for a loss. Junior defensive lineman Tyler Robinson leads the way with six tackles for a loss and senior linebacker Brady Murray has 4.5. Senior defensive lineman D.J. Mills, Robinson, senior linebacker Jacob Noe and senior defensive lineman Daniel Kremer have two quarterback sacks.

“A lot this week is going to depend on how we communicate on the back end,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “As long as we’re talking, I think we’ll put ourselves in good position. (Maloney) is a great receiver. He gets the ball and finds ways to gain yards after catching the ball. They come out in a lot of formations. They make you prepare for every one of them.”

The Bluebirds have recorded four interceptions and recovered four fumbles. Senior defensive back James Hinkel leads Highlands with two picks and senior lienbacker Patrick Schoepf has recovered two fumbles.

Highlands did a good job timing the snaps in the win at Harrison County. The Bluebirds snuck senior defensive back Andrew “The Cowboy” Abner near the line of scrimmage. He timed the snap well and quickly brought down the running back from behind for a loss.

“That’s one of the things you can’t really get on film,” Jones said. “You adjust to it on the field. We talk about getting used to the timing. You don’t get that on film. Once we get there, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

The Explorers also like to spread the ball around. Junior Ivan Smith leads Columbus with 60 carries for 462 yards and six touchdowns. Senior quarterback Tucker Beirne has completed 47-of-89 passes for 504 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

“As long as we squeeze the run and squeeze our C gaps, I don’t think they’ll be able to get outside of us,” said Conner Myers, Highlands sophomore defensive lineman. “They have some good skill players.”

Beirne throws to a number of receivers such as senior Austin Maloney. Malone has 20 catches for 236 yards and four touchdowns. Juniors Michael Ricardo and Kevin Housholder anchor the offensive line.

Prior to this year, Highlands had not played a team outside of Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana. The Bluebirds are slated to have only Kentucky teams on the schedule next year.

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