Highlands gearing up for moment of opportunity
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior quarterback Austin Hergott steps into a throw in Friday's game against Louisville St. Xavier.|
But the coaching staff hopes the Highlands Bluebirds football team players see it as a great opportunity and approach the week working toward the first signature win of the season. The Bluebirds travel to Independence for the first meeting with the undefeated Simon Kenton Pioneers at 7 p.m. It marks the first meeting against Simon Kenton since 1998.
The Simon Kenton Pioneers enter the game in a place Highlands is used to being in at 5-0 while the Bluebirds have struggled to an uncharacteristic 1-4 for the first time since 1939. Simon Kenton has outscored opponents, 227-73 overall while the competition has outscored Highlands by a combined 191-109.
"It's a game that we're excited about playing," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We've been working hard every day. We're just trying to get better."
Simon Kenton is 106-74 since Jeff Marksberry took over as head coach in 2000. The Pioneers struggled the first eight seasons in Marksberry's tenure making the playoffs just three times with no playoff wins. But Simon Kenton exploded in 2008 and finished Class 6A runner-up, 48-0 to Louisville Trinity. The Pioneers have since lost in the 6A region finals every year except 2011.
"Each week we try to find a way to make our team better every day," Marksberry said. "We are focused on us playing the best we can through the elimination of mistakes."
Highlands finds itself looking to regain its swagger that has led to eight straight state championship appearances with seven state championships and shake the comparisons to that 1939 Highlands squad that finished 2-8. That team won its first game against Carrollton, lost eight straight then finished the season with a 33-0 win over Dixie Heights.
Highlands lost its third in a row for the first time since 1976, 37-6 to Louisville St. Xavier. The Bluebirds last lost four in a row in 1948.
To pull off the big win, the Highlands passing game might need to shift into the high gear its seen in the past. The Bluebirds are averaging just 144.2 yards through the air. Senior quarterback Austin Hergott has completed 51-of-100 passes for 624 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior TJ Sipple leads Highlands with 13 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown.
"At the end of the (St. Xavier) game, we passed the ball a lot," Hergott said. "I got comfortable with it. If we can find a way to do both efficiently, I don't think there's any stopping our offense. We've shown we can do it in practice in 7-on-7s. We have a lot of new receivers running routes. Some of it is bad throws on my part. Once we get that going, we're a whole new team."
Senior running back Nick Kendall leads the Bluebirds with 382 yards rushing on 67 carries and five touchdowns. He also has 12 catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns, but teams have been loading up near the line of scrimmage to contain him. The Highands offensive line will face a Simon Kenton defensive line that averages 6-feet, 240 pounds.
Teams have rushed for just 422 yards and passed for 938 against the Pioneer 3-4 or 3-5 defense. Junior linebacker Brian Carter leads Simon Kenton with 42 tackles and senior linebacker Dalton Finnell has 41 to go with three fumble recoveries. Ten Pioneers have 20 or more tackles on the season and five have one interception each.
"They all make plays," Weinrich said. "They're a very solid defense. They're just real good at what they do. They trust it. It works for them."
The 3-4 Bluebird defense will face another talented spread offense Friday. Teams have rushed for an average of 225.8 yards per game and passed for an average of 195.2 on the Bluebird defense.
Simon Kenton has been led by the dynamic duo of junior quarterback Cameron Racke and senior running back Dillion Powell. Powell leads the Pioneer rushing attack that has 1,555 on the season with 113 carries for 813 yards and nine touchdowns to go with seven catches for 104 yards and a score.
Racke has completed 56-of-90 passes for 695 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. His leading target has been junior wide receiver Logan Kriedenweis with 14 catches for 182 yards and three touchdowns.
"They are balanced," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "We hope to get more positive plays so we can continue to get better each week. When we have opportunities to get the ball back, we want to get the ball back. We're just not making the plays. We saw some promise in some guys. I feel we have guys in position to be successful. It's really been a project from the beginning."
Highlands has had problems creating turnovers this season. The Bluebirds have just four fumble recoveries and an interception. Three of them came in the lone win over Campbell County.
Senior nose tackle Tyler Robinson leads Highlands with three sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Senior linebacker Ben Ziegler has 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss. But teams have been double and triple-teaming Robinson. The Simon Kenton offensive line led by senior David Sandlin averages 6-2, 260.
"If I'm getting triple-team, that means there are two guys on the defense that should be open so I don't mind taking the triple-team," Robinson said. "We just have to outexecute (Simon Kenton). We've been executing, but not as well as we should be doing."
Highlands leads the all-time series, 25-1 over Simon Kenton. The Bluebirds won that last meeting against the Pioneers in 1998, 28-12. The only Pioneer win in the series came 10-7 in 1974.