|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Rocco Pangallo (17) hoists the 2014 Class 4A state championship trophy while Patrick Schoepf (33) and Ben Ellison (44) celebrate.|
Instead, the Owensboro Red Devils came out swinging hard grabbing a 42-21 halftime lead. But the vaunted Highlands Bluebirds came right back out, flexed their muscles and came away with a hard-fought 49-42 victory in the Class 4A state championship on Saturday for their 23rd state championship. The game took place at Western Kentucky University’s Houchens-LT Smith Stadium.
It was a wonderful way to finish the 100th season in school history. In their two losses to Cincinnati Elder and Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus, Highlands fell behind big as well. But the Bluebirds were not able to complete the comebacks in those games despite huge rallies.
The Bluebirds moved to 868-229-26 in school history. That win total is good for second in the country behind Valdosta (Georgia) at 891-216-34.
“(Those games) maybe (helped) a little,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “It’s what they’ve been all season and doing since January. We show up every day and we work until it’s time to go home. It wasn’t time to go home yet so we kept fighting.”
Highlands ended up outgaining Owensboro, 455-413 in total offense including 30-25 in first downs. But at halftime, the Red Devils had 294 yards to 264 for the Bluebirds.
The Bluebirds defended the Owensboro Triple-Option Veer offense better in the second half. They finished with eight tackles for a loss for 20 yards. Brady Murray had 2.5 to lead Highlands and DJ Mills had two more. Rocco Pangallo and Austin Beal had one each and Grayson Heck combined for another. Jacob Noe led Highlands with eight tackles.
“We just decided we were going to fly to the ball. We weren’t going to make any major adjustments,” said Daniel Kremer, Highlands senior defensive lineman. “We knew they were going to come out and try to run it down our throat. We thought that was kind of disrespecting us so we came right back at them, especially in the second half. I’m just really proud of my team. We saw it all coming. But it was a struggle in the first half because we couldn’t get our range. We started to get ourselves under control and we started to play the way we love, which is fast and loose.”
Owensboro quarterback Nick Locher ran the Red Devil offense with efficiency. Anthony James carried the ball 24 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns and Locher had 11 carries for 86 yards and a touchdown. Locher also completed 12-of-21 passes for 159 yards and three touchdowns. Rodney Collier led the Red Devils with eight catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s the same thing we say every day,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “We’re going to play every single play. I said at halftime it doesn’t matter what happened in the first half. If we shut them out in the second half, our offense was going to win us the game. That’s what happened. The guys kept flying around. We made a couple minor adjustments up front. It was a difference in the whole game.”
Highlands quarterback Beau Hoge finished off a stellar career with 78 yards rushing on 18 carries and three touchdowns. He also completed 15-of-26 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns. The Brigham Young commit played wide receiver last year.
“It’s a team win,” Hoge said. “Everyone played a huge part. I just got to part of the act.”
The Highlands offensive line continuously gave Hoge time and the running backs lanes. Senior Griffin Urlage led the Bluebirds with 26 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown. Senior wide receiver Alex Veneman finished with eight catches for 66 yards.
“The guys ahead of us have been incredible,” said Brandon Lichtenberg, Highlands junior offensive lineman. “But I think this year, we’ve just absolutely stepped it up with our size and how many people we had. We fell behind, but we came back. We felt it in our minds. That’s all we needed to do to win.”
The Bluebirds turned the ball over twice in the first half and once in the second half. The turnovers helped Owensboro build the halftime advantage.
“We felt all year that we had so many different guys to go to,” Weinrich said. “We had to figure out which one to go to at that particular time. If we stopped stopping ourselves, we’d be fine.”
Highlands came out and Bradley Greene recovered an onside kick to start the game to give the Bluebirds the ball at their own 40. The Bluebirds moved the ball and took a 7-0 lead when Hoge scored from a yard out with 10:06 left in the first quarter.
But Owensboro quickly responded. Locher took the fake off left tackle for a 47-yard touchdown run to tie the game with 8:48 left.
The Red Devils took a 14-7 lead with 5:33 left in the quarter. James scored from eight yards out.
Following a bad punt, Owensboro went up 21-7 when Locher found Collier for a 37-yard score. The Red Devils then recovered an onside kick and James scored on a 14-yard dive with 9:45 left in the quarter.
That is when the Bluebirds responded. Hoge scored from a yard out to trim the margin to 28-14 with 6:16 left in the half.
Owensboro responded when Jahlil Barrett hauled in a 24-yard pass from Locher before Hoge found Mitch Cain for a 21-yard touchdown. But Owensboro scored with five seconds left in the half when Locher found Collier for a 12-yard touchdown.
The Bluebirds received the ball to start the second half and scored quickly. Urlage scored from four yards out to trim the margin to 42-28 with 9:42 left in the third.
The Bluebirds trimmed the margin to 42-35 with 4:41 left in the quarter. Hoge found Chandler New on an isolation route for a 34-yard touchdown pass.
Highlands did get the ball back but fumbled it back to Ownensboro. That’s when Austin Beal made a huge interception and returned it 70 yards to tie the game at 42 with 9:31 left in the game.
The Red Devils began taking changes. After converting a 4th-and-1 from their own 29, James took a pitch in the backfield and tried to throw downfield. That’s when James Hinkel recorded an interception at the Highlands 27 with 5:46 left in the game.
Hoge and Urlage carried the load for Highlands down the field. On second-and-goal, Hoge scored on a sweep left with 2:30 left in the game.
The Bluebirds needed to make a stop to seal the deal. With 50 seconds left, Heck intercepted the pass and returned the ball 18 yards to the Owensboro 46 allowing Highlands to run out the clock.
“It was nice,” Heck said. “I felt (the pass) coming because they were in that mountain four (formation). I just made a great break on it and we won the game.”
The Bluebirds will take the month off then begin working on the 2015 season in January. They play an all-Kentucky schedule next season.