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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Highlands-Louisville St. Xavier preview

Bluebirds aim to avoid first 1-4 start since 1939

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior defensive back Sam Taylor (44) tackles Ryle's Mitchell Bateman (35) in Friday's non-district game. Highlands hopes to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 1976 against Louisville St. Xavier on Friday.
The next opponent may be the tradition-rich St. Xavier Tigers from Louisville.

But the Highlands Bluebirds football team knows it has bigger issues to iron out before Friday's non-district encounter. The game starts at 7:30 p.m. EST at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.

The Bluebirds (1-3) hope to fix those issues quickly to avoid what was once considered unthinkable even a year ago. That's their first three-game losing streak since 1976 and first 1-4 start since 1939.

As much as some of the guys have learned successful traits from their fathers or older brothers who played on great Highlands teams, many of the players have younger brothers looking at how they are handling adversity. Bluebird wide receiver Chandler New is one of them. His older brother Carter played defensive back on the last undefeated team in 2011 and his younger brother Crosley is a sophomore defensive back.

"We're just trying to show them as seniors that the games that really matter haven't happened yet," Chandler New said. "Our record isn't where we want it to be but we still have plenty of time to improve and the season isn't even close to being over. We haven't had a district game yet. We could be 0-0 and be in the shape we're in come playoff time. We just have to stay positive, keep working hard and we'll get there eventually. It's just taking time."

But a win will have to be hard-fought against another tradition-rich Kentucky squad that is also still trying to find its identity. Both squads are one of six teams in the state that have 10 or more state championships in school history.

Highlands is tied with St. Xavier's arch-rival Louisville Trinity Shamrocks with a Kentucky-best 23 state championships, while the Tigers own 12. But the Tigers have not been past the region finals since their last crown in 2009. They snapped a seven-game losing streak to Trinity in the regular season last year before falling to the eventual state-champion Shamrocks, 9-3 in last year's region title game.

St. Xavier (2-1) enters the game off a 20-17 loss to Louisville Central. The Tigers beat Lexington Henry Clay (40-13) and Bowling Green (45-19) to start the season. Central had not beaten St. Xavier in 34 previous meetings.

The Tigers have outscored opponents 102-52. They've rushed for 887 yards as a team and passed for 320. Defensively, St. Xavier has allowed 285 yards rushing and 619 passing.

"They play very disciplined defense, very disciplined offense," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They do what they do and they're very good at it. They're going to take advantage of any weaknesses you have or any mistakes you make."

Junior Desmond Ridder emerged as the quarterback for the Tigers. Ridder has completed 27-of-52 passes for 331 yards to go with a touchdown and four interceptions. He is a dual threat out of St. Xavier's spread offense. Ridder leads the team with 35 rushes for 372 yards and four touchdowns.

Ridder left the Central game with an injury and the Tigers struggled offensively after that. Colin O'Daniel and Benjamin Blincoe lead St. Xavier with seven catches each for 101 and 34 yards respectively. Corey Clements has four catches for 140 yards.

That means Highlands will have to defend well in one-on-one coverage. Highlands has allowed an average of 202 yards passing and about 219 rushing this year.

"They try to get more people on either side of the ball," said Thomas Wood, Highlands senior defensive back. "We're trying to put faster people on the defensive line to try to get penetration. We just need to trust our keys. You can see the plays where we trust our keys and the plays where we don't. Teams can't really get by us if we do what we're supposed to do."

Highlands hopes to do better on third and fourth down. Ryle converted several key fourth downs in the win Friday. Opponents have converted 40 percent (19-of-47) on third down and 86 percent (6-of-7) on fourth down.

"We actually got better last week, but still couldn't find ways to get Ryle off the field," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "We're going to continue to get better. If you're not taking a step forward each game, you're taking a step backward. We'll have a good plan for this week and put our guys in good situations."

Highlands has four fumble recoveries on the season and one interception by Austin Beal. Trent Webster recovered a fumble against Ryle.

Highlands fans are waiting to see more plays like that. The Bluebirds have just one fumble recovery for a touchdown this season.

"A lot of it is a mentality," Jones said. "A lot of it is about also having that confidence to make that play. We're still working on that. You could say this about a lot of things. If a couple plays go different, you build that confidence. It could snowball either way. We try not to let it snowball the other way. We're not making enough of those plays right now."

Highlands is averaging 171 yards rushing and 146 passing the ball. The Bluebirds average 25.8 points per game.

Nick Kendall contiues to lead Highlands with 352 yards rushing on 56 carries and five touchdowns. The passing game had some big plays last week. Austin Hergott has completed 33-of-69 attempts for 485 yards and four touchdowns. TJ Sipple and New lead Highlands with 11 catches for 164 and 131 yards respectively with a touchdown each.

The Tigers also play an aggressive 3-4 defense. Senior linebacker Logan Butler leads the Tigers with 24 tackles and two fumble recoveries. The Tigers have two interceptions on the season.

Highlands and St. Xavier are facing off for the first time since 2006. The Tigers have won four of the six meetings in school history including the last two in 2006 (35-21) and 2005 (45-0). The last time Highlands won in the series came during its 1996 undefeated state championship run, 22-17 to open the season. The other Highlands win came in 1972 (10-7).

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