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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Highlands earns another semifinal victory

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands senior linebackers Patrick Schoepf (left) and Brady Murray (right) bring down Lexington Catholic wide receiver Andy Thompson (center) in Friday's Class 4A state semifinal game. The Bluebirds won 47-26l

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands wide receiver Alex Veneman (6) makes a tough catch in the first quarter of Friday's Class 4A state semifinal win over Lexington Catholic. The record-setting wide receiver had seven catches for 81 yards and a score.
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

Many may be tired of seeing them venture to Bowling Green.

But each football team has its own unique story in a town that cares about the players’ success in not just football but many things. The Highlands Bluebirds (12-2 overall) advanced to the state championship for the eighth straight year with a sound 47-26 win over the Lexington Catholic Knights on Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.

“We pretty much do the same things (as previous teams),” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “It’s just about all of us doing our jobs. For these guys, this is their only 2014 season. We have to do whatever we can as coaches to make it a great experience for them. It’s a legacy later. But it’s these guys, this year.”

The Bluebirds did that this year with a revamped offensive line protecting quarterback Beau Hoge. Highlands graduated 12 offensive linemen from last year’s Class 4A state runner-up squad and the lone returning senior with varsity experience has seen limited action because of injuries.

But senior Lou Bunning returned to the gridiron for the first time in three years and everyone including the likes of junior Carson Haas, Evan Richardson, Bo Hebel and seniors Manny Venegas and Matt Gall came together to give the Bluebirds the line play their used to seeing.

“We know that our job up front is to protect Beau and give him time,” Gall said. “If we protect Beau, he’s really good. Our defense played awesome. They were a little worried coming into the game. But they shut (LexCath) down and we were able to come in and do what we needed to do.”

The offensive linemen played a vital role in helping the balanced Highlands offense put up 523 yards of total offense in the win. Highlands rushed for 317 yards and passed for 206 in the victory.

The senior tandem of running back Griffin Urlage and Hoge ran for most of the yards. Urlage had 16 carries for 182 yards and two touchdowns and Hoge ran for 137 yards on 16 carries and three scores. Junior Nick Kendall added 47 yards on the ground.

“It’s not about which back,” Weinrich said. “It’s about who is in there at that time. We talked to our wide receivers this week about blocking on the perimeter because we knew there would be times when Beau would keep it. We blocked those guys.”

Hoge completed 14-of-25 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown to five different wide receivers. Senior Alex Veneman once again led the way with seven receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown. Chandler New and Kendall had two each for 39 and 37 yards respectively. Eric Miller and Justin Weyer also had receptions.

“We practiced hard all week. We practiced like it was a game,” Veneman said. “It pays off once it gets here. They stopped us once. We stopped ourselves a couple times. We could have put 70 points on the board. But mistakes happen. We played great.”

On the other side, Highlands took out the Lexington Catholic running game. The Knights developed a running threat this year in junior Jaylen Jones and were not afraid to run quarterback draws with quarterback Reece Ryan. Jaylen Jones entered the game with 1,658 yards rushing on 250 carries and 17 touchdowns. Ryan had 321 yards on 66 carries and six scores.

But the Bluebirds held the Knight rushing attack to minus-46 yards rushing on 27 carries. Jones had zero net yards on 10 attempts.

“In every game we watched, (running the ball) was the first thing they tried to do,” Jones said. “We weren’t going to let them run the ball. We made the decision we were not going to let (Ryan) sit and pick us apart. He’s a great quarterback. All the guys did a great job.”

Taking out Jones and jumping out to the 21-7 lead forced LexCath to keep Ryan in the pocket and throw the ball. The Bluebirds sacked him seven times for a total of minus-58 yards on 12 carries.

The Highlands front four had wonderful games. Seniors D.J. Mills, Daniel Kremer and Rocco Pangallo recorded two sacks each. Junior Tyler Robinson and senior John Abner combined for the other.

“I think from the beginning of the game, we had momentum,” Mills said. “All week, we’ve been working on squeezing and doing our jobs. I think it came out how we wanted it.”

Ryan did complete 31-of-48 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. But some of the throws were off-target because the Bluebirds put a lot of pressure on him.

The Knights saw their two leading receivers have decent games. Junior Joseph Ogbogu had seven catches for 82 yards and Andy Thompson recorded five for 66 yards.

“Last week prepared us for this week also,” said Kyle Martin, Highlands senior defensive back. “We try not to give up long passes. If you got beat, you took the 15-yard pass interference. We had good communication and got it done.”

Ryan threw many balls deep. But he also completed a lot of sideline passes. The Bluebirds gang-tackled those receivers so they did not make moves and break free for long gains.

LexCath struck first with 9:54 left in the first quarter. Ryan waited patiently for Ogbogu to break free over the middle for a wide-open 34-yard touchdown pass to put the Knights up 7-0.

“They got us there on the first drive,” Coach Jones said. “They didn’t let that carry over. That’s been our message all season. We did exactly what we wanted to. We made him get rid of the ball fast.”

But the Bluebirds quickly responded. Hoge drove them down the field and scored on a read-option left to tie the game at 7-7.

The Knights turned the ball over on the next play. Ryan fumbled and Mills recovered the ball in Lexington Catholic territory. A few plays later, Highlands took the lead for good when Hoge found Veneman on the left side of the end zone for a 24-yard score with 6:31 left in the quarter.

Highlands extended the margin to 21-7 with 1:19 left in the quarter. Hoge busted it in from a yard out.

The Bluebirds recorded another big turnover. Ryan completed a pass to Jaylen Jones, but he fumbled the ball into Highlands linebacker Jacob Noe’s hands while Highlands junior defensive back Austin Beal tackled him. Noe returned the ball 32 yards. The Bluebirds then went up 28-7 when Hoge scored from the right side from six yards out with 7:19 left in the half.

Lexington Catholic scored with 5:30 left in the half. Thompson caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Ryan. The kick failed leaving the score 28-13 Highlands at halftime.

Highlands scored quickly out of the halftime gate. Urlage broke free for a 67-yard scamper just 16 seconds into the half. That put the Bluebirds up 35-13.

After a Jared Dougherty 20-yard field goal with 7:04 left, Lexington Catholic scored before Urlage broke free for a 33-yard touchdown. Highlands led 44-20 at that point. Ogbogu scored on a 3-yard touchdown before the quarter ended making it 44-26 Bluebirds.

There was just one score in the fourth quarter. It came when Dougherty hit a 27-yard field goal with 8:35 left in the game.

Highlands hopes to redeem itself after not winning a state championship for the first time since 2006 last year. The Bluebirds lost to Collins, 37-34 with seven seconds left in that game snapping their state-record run of six consecutive state championships.

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