|Bluebirds, Jaguars set to meet for first time|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Jared Dougherty (10) hits an extra-point attempt while Mitch Cain (16) holds. Highlands travels to Cooper to open the season Friday. Game time is 7 p.m.|
The Cooper Jaguars jumped right into varsity football action in 2008 when the school opened to serve the growing Union population in Boone County. In just five seasons, Newport Central Catholic alumnus and Fort Thomas resident Randy Borchers built the Jaguars into a state championship contender in Class 5A.
The Jaguars won not only their first-ever playoff game in school history in 2012, but their first four on their way to finishing state runner-up to Bowling Green. After struggling to 3-8 in 2013, Cooper rebounded to a 9-5 season losing 33-7 at eventual 5A champion Pulaski County in the state semifinals.
The Highlands Bluebirds will head to Union to face the Jaguars for the first time ever Friday in the Skyline Crosstown Showdown. Game time is 7 p.m. It will mark the first time Highlands has played a school from Boone County since 2012 when the Bluebirds concluded the regular season with a 58-13 win at Ryle. Cooper moved up to Kentucky's largest Class 6A this season.
"I think we see more hunger from the players than enthusiasm," Borchers said. "Two out of the last three years, our players feel like we have been very close to our ultimate goal of winning a state championship. We feel that we had a great season last year, but came up short. Our players are wanting to finish the job this year."
Highlands hopes to build on its glorious past starting then. The Bluebirds own 23 state championships in school history including seven in the past eight seasons. They face a team that returns a lot of experience from last year.
The Bluebirds scrimmaged Cincinnati St. Xavier on Friday. The Bombers won 48-22. That showed Highlands close it is to establishing its identity on offense and defense.
"We're getting there. (On) Friday, we were just trying to work on some different things," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We ran some plays over and over just to get better at them. In a scrimmage, you're not necessarily trying to do what is there. You're trying to use that to get better, watch the film, then in practice find that identity. It still takes a few weeks to get into the rhythm."
Highlands is known for running balanced offenses. The Bluebirds averaged 200 yards on the ground and nearly 237 passing last year. But those numbers most likely will change with new starting senior quarterback Austin Hergott.
Highlands has experience surrounding Hegott on the offensive line and in the skill positions. The Bluebirds offensive line is led by seniors Bo Hebel, Evan Richardson, Carson Haas, Nathan Raleigh and junior Kyle Finfrock. But players like sophomore Michael Dunn saw time there.
The one thing Highlands hopes to clean up this week is better center-quarterback exchanges. The Bluebirds saw Hergott chase down a bad snap in the backfield resulting in a huge loss of yards. Dunn said centers are coached to face the defender and not the quarterback and make the snap a natural motion.
"Collectively as a unit, we all get along really well. It doesn't matter who's in the game," Dunn said. "We're just trying to do our job and work together. We can only get better."
The Jaguars run a 4-2-5 defense. Teams rushed for 1,096 against Cooper last year and passed for 703. Senior defensive lineman Marcus Watson returns after leading the team with 101 tackles last year. Senior linebacker Aiden Keller also returns after recording 72 tackles and three interceptions last year. Senior defensive back Nathan Brown led Cooper with four interceptions last year.
"I'd never seen them on film before. As soon as we put that film in Saturday, all the coaches were extremely impressed with how well they're coached," Weinrich said. "I am not just saying that. You can tell by their techniques and what they're doing. They spend a lot of time doing it the right way. They play hard. It doesn't surprise me at all the success they've had the last few years."
Senior Nick Kendall returns at running back for Highlands. The leading returning wide receivers are seniors Chandler New, Eric Miller and Mitch Cain. The Bluebirds do not have players going both directions while Cooper has some so Highlands could wear the Jaguars out with their depth. But Weinrich said the Bluebirds have made progress since the scrimmage.
"They're starting to understand why we're harping on the little details," Weinrich said. "When you scrimmage a team like (Cincinnati) St. X, if you're supposed to take a six-inch step back, you have to take that step. If you don't, good teams like that are going to step in front. There were a few plays glaring on film where we said that's why we do it that way. We prepare to beat the good teams. You have to make sure you get where you have to get and get there the right way."
The Highlands 3-4 defense will have to prepare for a Cooper offense that runs a comination of I-formation and Spread sets. That includes one and two-tight end sets and trips.
"Their offensive line gets after it. They get you in positions and run you out," said Shelby Jones, Higlands Defensive Coordinator. "They do a good job getting off the ball. It should be a good test for us. We'll have to improve on some things we didn't do well last week. We hope to get those things fixed with a good week of practice."
Cooper had depth at quarterback. Senior Torrey Cordell-Armstrong led the team in rushing last year with 1,752 yards on 265 carries and 16 touchdowns. Senior Chad Michels and junior Dante Hendrix return at wide receiver. Hendrix had a team-high 46 catches for 551 yards and five touchdown last year.
"Our ultimate goal is to be balanced, but more importantly, we need to adjust what we do offensively to our athletes," Borchers said. "The only goal we really have offensively is to control the ball and do not put our defense in bad positions. As long as we do this, it does not matter if we run the ball 80 percent of the time, pass the ball 75 percent of the time or if we keep it balanced, we feel it is a success."
Michels and Hendrix are sure to test the Bluebird secondary. Senior Austin Beal returns from last year and is helping the other defensive backs adjust to the varsity level. The Highlands defensive backs know they can not allow the wide receivers run behind them.
"We just try to stay over top of the receiver and get our head around so we don't get pass interference. That's another 15 yards," said Kyle Rust, Highlands junior defensive back. "It's a matter of reading how they're coming off the ball and how they're running their route."
Highlands will be lead by senior Tyler Robinson at nose tackle and junior Drew Brevard. Seniors Conner Welsch, Jared Dougherty and Ben Ziegler anchor the linebackers. St. Xavier successfully ran for three and four yards at a time in the scrimmage, but Jones said there is a way to counter that.
"You have to get your gaps filled, trust your keys, come up and make plays," Jones said. "One of the things they do pretty well is they'll pack it in then throw the fade 1-on-1 with a pretty good receiver. We're excited to get to play them."
Cooper does play on a grass field and things can get muddy. It rained some in the area Wednesday. But Jones said that is not a big deal because the coaches teach solid footwork.