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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Highlands-Dixie Heights Preview

Highlands looks to continue district winning streak

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands Bluebirds charge onto the field in their most recent game at Simon Kenton.
It was about 10 months ago that these two teams found themselves playing for state championships.

Both teams enjoyed 13-2 campaigns last year. The Highlands Bluebirds captured their state-record 23rd state championship with a come-from-behind 49-42 victory over the Owensboro Red Devils in the Class 4A title game. Following that, the Dixie Heights Colonels lost to Louisville Trinity, 47-14 in the 6A championship game.

That marked the first time in school history the Colonels played for a football state championship.

But the transition to this season has been rough on both as they enter Class 5A, District 5 action with identical 1-5 records. Highlands graduated 26 seniors from last year's squad and Dixie Heights graduated 18 including quarterback Drew Moore.

One will leave Friday's game at David Cecil Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m. with a leg up in the district race. The two played in the same Class 5A district from 2007 to 2010.

"Everything is about the district," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "It has nothing to do with the last however many games. If we win this game, we put ourselves in position to win the district, which is the number one goal right now."

Highlands is coming off its bye week, while Dixie Heights lost 35-7 at Cooper on Friday. District rival Covington Catholic is also 1-5 playing a rugged schedule including Greater Catholic League South power Cincinnati St. Xavier. Dixie Heights recorded its lone win over winless Boone County, 35-21 on Sept. 25.

"We have a young team and it was a tough beginning to the season," said Dave Brossart, Dixie Heights Head Coach. "We lost four straight and could have won two of the games. We were up on Milford (Ohio) (but) lost the game in the fourth quarter. We only lost by one (13-12) to Conner. Beating Boone was a confidence builder and despite losing 35-7 to a very good Cooper team, I feel like we have improved each week."

Points have come at a premium for both teams. The Bluebirds average 18.7 points per game and the Colonels average just 16. Opponents have scored an average of 38.8 per game on Highlands and 32 on Dixie Heights.

The winner of this game could be the one that runs the ball better as both have struggled throwing the ball. The Bluebirds average 141.2 yards per game rushing the ball and 138.5 passing compared to 137.7 rushing and just 74.2 passing for the Colonels.

A lot of that falls in the trenches. The Highlands offensive line hopes to open holes better for the running backs. Senior running back Nick Kendall continues to lead Highlands with 431 yards rushing on 82 attempts and five touchdowns along with 19 receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

"From the line standpoint, we've been hitting more sleds and focusing on driving our feet to do what we need to do to move people out of the holes," said Evan Richardson, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "Strategically, we've been working on getting (defenders) coming off the back side so they don't get to the running back before he gets the ball."

The return of two key senior wide receivers in Mitch Cain and Chandler New should help the Bluebirds this week. New has 12 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown, but missed the Simon Kenton game after suffering an injury in the loss to Louisville St. Xavier. Cain has not played since the season-opening loss at Cooper. Cain was the leading returning wide receiver from last year with 28 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns.

Highlands quarterback Austin Hergott has completed 67-of-133 passes for 730 yards, five touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Senior TJ Sipple is second on the team with 14 catches for 188 yards and a touchdown.

"I think the bye week helped us get a little fresher and get some of those guys back, which is a good thing," Weinrich said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing or what they're doing. We have to execute what we're doing. We're getting there. That's what our emphasis is every day."

The Bluebirds will face a 4-2-5 Dixie Heights defense. The Colonels have allowed an average of about 178 yards rushing per game and 163 passing. Brossart said Dixie Heights needs to be more consistent defensively and tackle better in open space.

Senior linebacker Noah Caple leads Dixie Heights with 34 tackles. The Colonels have picked off six passes and recovered four fumbles. Junior defensive back Zachary Borchers leads Dixie Heights with three interceptions.

The 3-4 Highlands defense will take on a multiple-look pro style Dixie Heights offense that tries to establish the run and build from there. The Colonels use a tight end and two backs in the backfield and employ some option and spread concepts. They ran a lot of read-option plays with Moore last year.

"We just need to be fundamentally sound and everyone has to do his job on every play to the best of his ability," said Conner Welsch, Highlands senior linebacker. "These read-options are going to try to get guys out of position. That's where they'll kill you. When. you see someone else out of position, you want to help them out. We're a team on the field and off the field. We just have to trust that our teammates are going to do their job."

Junior Jose Torres leads the Colonels with 512 yards rushing on 106 carries and three touchdowns. Senior Gunther Faeth is the new quarterback. He has completed 52-of-106 passes for 453 yards, a touchdown and five interceptions. Faeth also has 147 yards rushing on 74 attempts and four touchdowns.

"They sprinkle in some play-action passes," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "If we do what we're supposed to do, we should be in good shape."

Senior wide receiver Ethan Schulte and senior running back Keegan Barmore have been Faeth's top two targets. Schulte has 21 catches for 225 yards and Barmore has 19 for 200 yards and a touchdown. Barmore also had 147 yards rushing on 37 carries and three touchdowns.

"We have to take advantage of field position, convert third downs and score inside the red zone," Brossart said. "We have not capitalized on scoring opportunities this season. In order to beat anyone, we must improve in these areas."

Teams have averaged 229.8 yards per game rushing the ball and 187.7 passing against the Bluebirds. They've been double and triple-teaming senior nose tackle Tyler Robinson. Highlands likes to play fast and aggressive on defense. The Bluebirds have shown signs of that at times, but not as consistently as past years.

Robinson has six tackles for a loss and three quarterback sacks. Linebacker Ben Ziegler has a team-high 3.5 sacks.

Highlands hopes to create turnovers better in these last four games. The Bluebirds have recovered four fumbles and intercepted one interception.

A 28-game district winning streak is on the line for Highlands. The last district loss for the Bluebirds came in 2006 against Covington Catholic.

This season marks the first time Highlands has lost five games in a season since 2006. The last time the Bluebirds dropped six in a season came all the way back in 1948 when they went 3-8.

"Highlands is dangerous because of its tradition, confidence and mystique," Brossart said. "Even though they are 1-5, do not count them out. They have tradition on their side - something we and other programs are trying to achieve. We will always take our opponents seriously. They had a bye week and I am sure Coach (Weinrich) will have them prepared."

This marks the first meeting between the two teams since 2011. The Bluebirds lead the all-time series, 62-8. Highlands has won 11 in a row in the series dating back to Dixie's last win in 2002, 21-14 in overtime.

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