Thursday, October 22, 2015

Highlands-Grant County preview

Highlands looking to take care of business in district game

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior running back Grant Murray (right) looks for running room against Covington Catholic on Saturday.
Facing any other district opponent in recent years has not carried the same aura and emotions that the most recent opponent has.

It is understandable considering the Highlands Bluebirds have dominated any district opponent other than the Covington Catholic Colonels during their 116-12 run in recent years. Highlands handled Dixie Heights, 42-7 two weeks ago before beating Covington Catholic, 14-10 Saturday to claim the top seed in Class 5A, District 5 in the playoffs.

But the Highlands Bluebird coaching staff wants the players to treat each district game with the same importance. The Bluebirds have not disappointed in previous years and hope to take care of business Friday against the Grant County Braves at 7 p.m. Both teams are 3-5 on the season.

Former Highlands defensive back and running back Kevin Siple has guided the Braves to two more wins than each of the last two seasons. Prior to the season, Siple said this is the most experienced team Grant County has had since he became head coach in 2012 with 20 seniors. Outside the 47-9 loss to Covington Catholic, Grant County has lost four games by eight or fewer points. Siple said the Braves are a few plays away from being 7-1.

"They have a good football team," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We saw them in person against CovCath and we saw them on film against Dixie Heights. They do a variety of things to keep you honest offensively and defensively."

Even though the Braves will enter the playoffs as the fourth seed out of the district, it still marks the first time Grant County has been to the playoffs since 2008. The Braves also had their last winning season that year going 7-4 and losing in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs to John Hardin.

"These seniors have taken us to a new level in terms of having a chance to win each week," Siple said. "In the past couple years, we knew going in to most of our games, we did not match up with our opponent and physically, we got manhandled. Now we have to take the next step and learn how to win close games. I think it's just a mental thing that kids have to believe they WILL win each and every game. Programs that have a tradition of winning believe they will win, and teams that have struggled believe that something bad will happen that will keep them from winning. It's a process that a program must go through to get to where they can have that tradition."

Highlands hopes to win its 31st straight district game dating back to 2006. It would also put the finishing touches on its 19th district championship in 20 years.

The Braves expected big things from senior fullback Hunter Lawson and he has led the Braves with 321 yards rushing on 64 carries and 12 touchdowns. But senior running back Robert Spohn has given Grant County another weapon with 262 yards rushing on 28 carries and three touchdowns. He has also led the Braves with 21 catches for 372 yards and five touchdowns.

But the two have battled injuries. Siple said Lawson tore his meniscus and sprained his ankle bad against Louisville Holy Cross and Spohn tore elbow ligaments against CovCath. Lawson missed the CovCath game but played against Dixie Heights. Spohn has not missed any games.

"Anytime you have a big guys like that, you don't want to tackle high on him," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator of Lawson. "We'll just rally to the ball and get more guys on him." 

Grant County has rushed for 1,081 yards on the season and passed for 981. Senior quarterback Joseph Knipp has completed 67-of-141 passes for 971 yards and nine touchdowns. Knipp also has carried the ball more with the injuries going for 260 yards on 86 carries and three touchdowns.

The Bluebirds have shown a lot of improvement in their 3-4 defense. Opponents are averaging 222.5 yards rushing and 161.5 passing against the Bluebirds.

"Really the focus has been on ourselves and not so much who we're playing," Jones said. "We have to get better ourselves and not worry so much about what other teams are doing."

But Highlands has done better creating turnovers. That could be key against the improved Grant County one and two-back offense that also strives for balance. The Bluebirds have recovered eight fumbles on the season with junior defensive lineman Drew Bravard and linebacker Trey Bowden recovering two each and intercepted four passes. Junior defensive back Bradley Greene leads Highlands with two interceptions on the season.

The Highlands defensive line did a better job penetrating the Covington Catholic backfield in the second half. Senior defensive lineman Tyler Robinson leads the Bluebirds with 8.5 tackles for a loss and four quarterback sacks. Linebacker Luke Lindeman has 4.5 sacks on the year for a team-high and linebacker Ben Ziegler has 3.5. Siple hopes the Braves can grind out first downs running the ball. But he knows that will be tough with Robinson in the middle.

"Highlands football is about smashmouth football," said Caleb Mullikin, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "You just have to get off the line and hit them hard to stop the run. Once one guy makes a play, everybody keeps making plays and it starts rolling."

Teams have rushed the ball well against Grant County's 4-4 defense. The Braves have given up 1,704 yards rushing on the season and 962 passing. That could be a huge advantage for an improved Highlands offensive line.

"We've been trusting ourselves and know the plays better," said Elijah Miller-Cox, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "We just need to get the defensive linemen down, hit the linebackers and have the running backs hit the gaps."

Senior linebacker Triston Wallace leads the Braves with 79 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Knipp also plays defensive back for Grant County and leads the team with four interceptions.

"Defensively, we have not played as well as I thought we would," Siple said. "We are not doing a good job stopping the run and that makes it tough. Our defensive line has played pretty well, but we will have to improve on defense to have a chance to win in the playoffs."

The Bluebirds are averaging 151 yards per game rushing the ball and 125 passing. Senior Nick Kendall still leads Highlands with 125 rushes for 603 yards and seven touchdowns and 21 receptions for 126 yards and two scores.

"We have to continue to improve in all areas," Weinrich said. "As far as games go, we have to continue to take what they're giving us and stay with what's working. They've been doing it all year, but it's really starting to click for some of them. They're making plays and getting a lot of good reps in practice."

But the Highlands passing game has shown signs of light in the two district wins. Senior quarterback Austin Hergott has completed 86-of-161 passes for 899 yards, six touchdowns and 10 touchdowns on the season. Siple said the Braves must force Highlands into second and third-and-long situations. But even then, Siple said a huge challenge exists.

"They have a Division I quarterback and five or six fast receivers who can go get it," Siple said. "They are very good when they can run the ball to set up the pass. We just have to hope they are having a bad night or maybe we can catch them 'deflating the balls' or something."

Highlands and Grant County are meeting for the first time since 2006. The teams met six straight years between 2001 and 2006 and the Bluebirds won all six meetings by at least 32 points.

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