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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Highlands-Ryle Preview

Highlands aims to avoid first 1-3 start since 1967

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Nick Kendall (8) breaks free during the second half of Friday's game at Scott County. Kendall leads the Bluebirds with six touchdowns on the season.
It is not necessarily a must-win game.

But the tradition-rich Highlands Bluebirds football team hopes to avoid something that has not happened since 1967. That's a 1-3 start. Highlands dropped its first three games that year on its way to a 6-4 season.

The 1991 squad also dropped the first three games on the field. But the season-opening 22-21 loss to eventual 3A state champion Bell County became a win via forfeit leaving the Bluebirds 2-2 after four games.

"These guys have put too much into it to back down," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We're not running from anything. We don't care what anyone thinks or what anyone says. We're a group of guys working hard together. We're going to keep getting after it every single day. We're going to stick together and do what we can as a group to help each other out, whether you're the best player on the team or one of the guys at the other end."

Highlands will play host to the upstart Ryle Raiders at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m. The Raiders return to Fort Thomas for the first time since 2011 as the series resumes after a two-year hiatus.

Ryle come to town undefeated at 3-0. The Raiders defeated Covington Catholic (35-28), Lexington Catholic (31-24) and in-county rival Boone County (52-7).

Former Lexington Catholic Offensive Coordinator Mike Engler guided Ryle to a 5-7 campaign last year in his first season as head coach. The Raiders beat George Roger Clark, 28-14 in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs before losing 46-21 at Dixie Heights.

Both teams run spread offenses. Highlands averages 203.7 yards rushing per game and just 124.3 passing. Senior running back Nick Kendall has been the most consistent offensively for the Bluebirds rushing the ball 44 times for 335 yards and five touchdowns. He had an 81-yard run against Scott County.

But Highlands may need to pass the ball better if Ryle loads up to stop Kendall. Junior Brady Gosney started in place of senior Austin Hergott. Hergott is nursing a sprained right shoulder and the staff did not want to risk hurting it further. Gosney has completed 9-of-26 passes for 93 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions on the season. Hergott has completed 19-of-41 passes for 280 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.

"The guys' safety and health is the number one concern," Weinrich said. "We're never going to put a guy in a situation where it will make something worse for him. It's not a coaching decision. It's a doctor, the trainer or their parents. That's the only thing that matters. We're not worried about who we're playing or what part of the season it is."

Senior TJ Sipple leads Highlands with nine catches for 118 yards with Chandler New catching seven passes for 82 yards. Kendall has the team's lone touchdown reception on the season. Weinrich said it  is "day-to-day" as to who will start at quarterback. The main thing is to see every player improve like it has been for a while.

"That's the only way to approach it," Weinrich said. "It doesn't matter if you're 3-0, 0-3 or 1-2. As a whole, you have to figure out what you're best at and get better at those and what you're weaknesses are and fix them quickly because (the season) is going fast."

The Raiders also run an aggressive 3-4 defense. Junior inside linebacker Colin Demetrakis leads the Raiders with 31 tackles. Junior inside linebacker Jackson High has Ryle's lone fumble recovery on the season and senior defensive back Logan Rieman has Ryle's only interception.

Ryle junior quarterback Tanner Morgan is having a great season so far. Morgan has completed 42-of-70 passes for 820 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. Bryce Ashley leads the Raiders with 12 catches for 281 yards and three touchdowns.

The Raiders have shown some balance with 572 yards rushing collectively. Senior running back Lex McGregor leads Ryle with 18 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns with senior Colin England going for 107 yards on 26 carries for three scores.

The Bluebird 3-4 defense is allowing an average of 196.3 rushing yards per game and 181.3 passing. They know they must get pressure on Morgan. Senior defensive lineman Tyler Robinson leads Highlands with three sacks for a total of 19 yards lost.

"(Morgan is) awesome. He makes good decisions," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "He gets out of the pocket when he needs to. He gets the ball to the guys. They've done a great job building an offense around him. There's not much more you can say about that."

Highlands hopes to create turnovers like it did in the win over Campbell County. The Bluebirds recovered two fumbles and senior defensive back Austin Beal recorded the only interception of the season for Highlands.

Luke Lindeman, Joe Dressman and Drew Bravard have one fumble recovery each for the Bluebirds. Lindeman returned a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown in the loss to Scott County on Friday.

"The key to what we're doing is doing our jobs," Jones said. "We've actually been taking steps forward every week. Last week, we just didn't do our job. We lost trust in what we were doing. We have to get back to trusting what we're doing and buying in."

Highlands leads the all-time series, 11-2. The only Ryle wins came in 2010 (28-26) and 1995 (27-3). The Bluebirds won the last meeting in 2012, 58-13 on a rain-soaked evening.

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