Thursday, August 13, 2015

Defending 5A champion top list of Highlands challengers this season

Contributed Photo. The Pulaski County Maroons won their first-ever football state championship last December. The last step in goals that Head Coach John Hines set out to accomplish when he became head coach in 1999 is becoming a dynasty. Highlands has been that for a while winning its 23rd crown a day later. The defending Class 4A and 5A state championships could meet Nov. 27 in Fort Thomas for the right to return to Bowling Green in the 5A state semifinals. 
The sign has been up in their weight room since John Hines became head coach in 1999.

It specifically reads, "from NOBODY to UPSTART, from UPSTART to DISTRICT CONTENDER, from CONTENDER to DISTRICT CHAMPION, from DISTRICT to REGIONAL CHAMPION, from REGIONAL to STATE CHAMPION, from STATE CHAMPION to DYNASTY." A sticker is placed next to right of all but the last step in the Pulaski County Maroons football team's weight room.

A similar sign does not exist where the Highlands Bluebirds work out because they've been a dynasty for a while. Highlands and Louisville Trinity own a state-best 23 state football championships including the Class 4A crown last December. The Bluebirds have won at least three crowns in each of the past six decades.

But the Maroons enter the season as top team to challenge the Bluebirds coming off their first state championship in school history last December. Pulaski County held off Graves County, 14-7 to claim the 5A title one day before Highlands rallied past Owensboro, 49-42.

If both teams continue that momentum from last season, they could meet Nov. 27 in Fort Thomas on Black Friday as defending state champions in the 5A semifinals. But other teams could have a say in things before the dust settles in Bowling Green in early December.

1. Pulaski County Maroons (13-2 last year)

The Maroons were the only first-time state champion in December. They claimed the crown after losing to Bowling Green in the title game the previous year.

"It is a gratifying experience to see our program grow from one of being 'non-existent' to one that is playing on a state championship level," Hines said. "That is due to some great players with a great drive to be successful, and a group of assistant coaches that work tirelessly to raise the level of our program."

The good news for Hines is most of those players return as only seven seniors graduated. The bad news is the Maroons had many of them going both ways last year so conditioning and developing depth could be key, especially when they face teams that do not have players going both directions.

Leading the way on offense is fourth-year starting senior quarterback Riley Hall. Hall completed 146-of-230 passes for 2,068 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. His leading target in junior Jake Johnson also returns. Johnson had 82 catches for 1,295 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Like Highlands, the Maroons run a balanced, spread offense. They ran for 2,581 yards and passed for 2,597 collectively meaning teams had to pick their poison with them. Despite that, Hines wants to see Pulaski County become more efficient on offense. He said PC relied too much on the big play last season.

Defensively, Pulaski County runs a 3-4 base defense. The Maroons allowed 1,593 rushing and 1,444 passing yards last year. Their leading tackler with 130 in senior inside linebacker Mason Helton returns along with senior cornerback George Gregory. Gregory led PC with four interceptions last year.

Hines agreed that PC will need to defend opposing skill players well one-on-one and be able to tackle in open space. The Maroons contained Graves County standout running back Cody Crider in the 5A title game.

"The team that wins it all in 5A has a huge mountain to climb," Hines said. "With that level of competition, any weakness will be exploited right away. The team that wins it will be one with very few weaknesses."

2. Bowling Green Purples (11-2)

The Purples entered last year with a 44-game winning streak and three straight 5A championships. But visiting Chattanooga (Tennessee) McCallie ended the second-longest winning streak in Kentucky history at 48 wins in a row on Sept. 19 and Graves County shut out the Purples, 7-0 in the region title game denying Bowling Green a shot at four in a row. But veteran Purples Head Coach Kevin Wallace said last season has not even been talked about.

Bowling Green gives teams multiple looks offensively. The Purples return two solid running backs in senior Jacob Yates and junior Jamele Carothers. The two ran for more than 2,400 yards last year.

Junior wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson also returns for Bowling Green. The Purples need to fill in three spots on the offensive line while junior quarterback Clark Payne gets comfortable on the varsity level at the quarterback spot.

"The challenge of every high school offensive coordinator is to discover what his team does best rather than take the players and conform them to a system," Wallace said. "We believe we will be a balanced offense that is based around two very good running backs."

Like Highlands, Bowling Green does not have many players going both directions. But Yates could also see time at strong safety along with cornerback Tre Fant. Jake Bush, Andrew Spader and Cody Boyd return in Bowling Green's 3-4 defense that has a lot of athleticism, but not the size of recent teams.

"Programs like ours are not build via a 'microwave' philosophy," Wallace said. "Players normally put in a great deal of time and work before reaching a point where they are in the limelight. The expectation is that the long preparation has players well groomed for success."

Bowling Green still faces Louisville St. Xavier in addition to Owensboro, McCracken County and county rival Warren Central. But the Purples do not face anyone outside Kentucky like they have the past couple years when they faced teams in Tennessee.

3. Covington Catholic Colonels (8-5)

CovCath can not be counted out most years even with four straight losses to Highlands in the regional championship and a new head coach.

Former Newport Central Catholic and Georgetown standout Eddie Eviston took over the program in the offseason hoping to get the Colonels over the hump. Eviston experienced success at his alma mater leading the Thoroughbreds to two 2A state championships in three seasons as head coach.

The Colonels again face a daunting schedule that includes Ryle, Lexington Catholic and Scott County. CovCath also faces three teams from Ohio including Cincinnati St. Xavier. That rugged schedule left the Colonels with numerous injuries in the past.

"We accept the challenge," Eviston said. "Many people will look at our schedule and maybe rightfully so ask, 'What is CovCath thinking!' But as a team, we are looking forward to it and intend to enjoy the ride and the challenges that are set out in front of us. Sometimes in football, injuries are things that are completely out of your control. The things we can control are our off-season conditioning, our daily stretching and strength program, and the overall conditioning of our team. We have attacked that this off-season and pre-season, and will continue to during the season."

The Colonels plan to run a hybrid of the 4-3 and 4-2-5 defenses. Eviston said the defense may have to carry CovCath early in the season while the players adapt to the hybrid run-and-shoot and spread looks offensively. Junior Anthony Best returns to anchor the secondary and along with senior outside linebacker Cam Pitzer.

"The maturity and experience from our seniors and game-experienced players has to be evident as we face so many great and well-coached teams throughout the year," Eviston said. "They need to lead the way for our younger guys."

The new quarterback will be either junior Tony Hentz or sophomore AJ Mayer. But the Colonels do return senior Ryan McGinnis at either running back or wide receiver and two solid offensive linemen in senior Chris Reisiger and junior Hunter Ziegelmeyer.

4. Southwestern Warriors (10-3)

Former Boyle County Head Coach Larry French told players they needed to be prepared to get in shape when he took over before last season. The result was a turnaround from a 1-9 campaign the year before.

Southwestern captured the District 7 championship by beating the county rival Maroons, 14-0 on the second to last week of the season. The Warriors then cruised past Perry County Central and North Laurel to open the playoffs before the Maroons won the rematch, 24-16 in the regional championship game.

The Warriors return some nice skill players offensively in junior quarterback Brandon Pruitt and
sophomore running back Patrick Edwards. Edwards ran for 1,249 yards on 139 carries and 13 touchdowns. Pruitt completed 102-of-184 passes for 1,555 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Edwards plays safety defensively. Southwestern also returns junior defensive tackle Austin Dalton.

5. Christian County Colonels (4-8)

This name sounds familiar to Highlands fans because the Bluebirds faced them in the 2008 and 2010 Class 5A state championship games. Highlands won both, 35-15 in 2008 and 50-0 two years later.

The return of young and talented players led by junior wide receiver Keyron Catlett has some believing they will rise back to where the Colonels were years ago. Catlett had 61 catches, 12 touchdowns and 1,241 yards receiving last year. But veteran Head Coach Steve Lovelace said it's too soon to go there.

"We have a lot of pieces to put together," Lovelace said. "Keyron is a very good player. It's nice to have a player like him to build around. We have to be good up front to get our play makers the ball. We have to do a better job of protecting our quarterback and must have a better running game this year."

Christian County also returns its starting quarterback in sophomore Kolbe Langhi. Langhi completed 168-of-317 passes for 2,338 yards, 24 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Lovelace said the Colonels can't turn the ball over in their two-back, multiple-look offense. Lovelace also said Christian County must stay healthy because of a lack of depth.

Defensively, Lovelace listed several improvements. They are improved tackling, holding better on third downs, lining up right and not blowing coverages out of the 5-2 look.

Christian County will find out where it stands early. The Colonels battle Bowling Green on Aug. 29 in the Toyota of Hopkinsville Jerry Claiborne Bowl.

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