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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bluebirds runs streak to 15 over Colonels

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior wide receiver Eric Miller (15) makes a move following a catch against Covington Catholic senior defensive back Adam Piccirillo (6) in Friday's 44-22 region final win over the Colonels. Miller had seven catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
If the Blue and White put up a string of knots on the wall inside their locker room, it would have 15 in it commemorating the dates.

The Highlands Bluebirds football team (8-5 overall) takes its heated battles against the Covington Catholic Colonels (5-8) that seriously, especially since they've met during the regular season and for the region championship five years in a row. The Bluebirds extended their win streak to that number of wins in a row over the Colonels pulling away for a 44-22 victory at David Cecil Memorial Stadium dating back to 2006. CovCath came into the region title game as the lone team left in all six Kentucky classes with a losing record.

"They kept fighting and kept true to what we were trying to do," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They didn't let the situation overwhelm them. They took it one play at a time. We preached that to them all week. The guys came through at the end and made plays when we needed to."

The teams once again played in front of a packed house. The fans stayed until the end for the most part in both the regular season and playoff games this season unlike previous years when Highlands blew out Covington Catholic. Highlands won 14-10 at CovCath on Oct. 17.

Highlands improved to 49-17 all-time against CovCath. The Bluebirds joined the teams of the last four seasons and seven others who also beat the Colonels in both the regular season and playoff rematch. They also avoided the fate of the 1997 and 2001 teams that beat CovCath in the regular season, but lost the playoff rematch.

The Bluebirds survived the Colonels in the region title game by a 37-34 count a year ago. CovCath trimmed the lead to that margin with 4:57 left in the game. But the Bluebirds ran out the clock behind Beau Hoge and Griffin Urlage.

The Colonels trimmed a fourth-quarter Bluebird lead to 30-22 with 4:44 remaining. The Bluebirds went back to the ground game to attempt to run out the clock and stall the Colonel momentum mostly with senior Nick Kendall. Kendall broke free for a 31-yard touchdown run with 2:33 left in the game.

The Highlands defense forced CovCath to turn the ball over on downs on its next possession and the Bluebirds put the icing on the cake. Kendall took a hand-off 20 yards for the touchdown with 50 seconds left to make the final score.

Kendall once again finished with a big game with 25 carries for 222 yards and three touchdowns. But most of the 284 yards rushing came in the second half as the Highlands offensive line wore down the CovCath defense.

"We knew that toward the end of the game, once we had that lead, we could take the game over by ourselves," said Bo Hebel, Highland senior offensive lineman. "If we just do what we do, wear them down, it's our game to win. We're just trying to take it one day at a time and get better. We're (in the state semifinals), but we're not done yet."

CovCath loaded the box against the Highlands spread offense trying to limit a Bluebird running game that had been on fire in the playoffs. Highlands rushed for 722 yards combined in blowout wins over Woodford County (50-14) and Dixie Heights (52-21) in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The Bluebirds have rushed for a combined 1,006 yards in the three playoff games. Kendall has led the way like he has all season going for 582 yards on 55 carries and nine touchdowns.

Highlands finished with 453 yards total to 357 for CovCath garnering 12 first downs. But the passing game had to build the lead and the senior duo of quarterback Austin Hergott to wide receiver Eric Miller led the way. Hergott completed 11-of-18 passes for 168 yards and Miller had seven catches for 124 with two touchdowns.

"They were playing man (defense) and it really opened up holes over the top," Miller said. "We just took advantage of what they were giving us. We have to give credit to the running backs and o-line the last two games. They've really been setting us up."

CovCath rushed for 198 yards and passed for 159 garnering 16 first downs. Sophomore quarterback AJ Mayer led the Colonels completing 14-of-19 passes for 159 yards and rushing for 67 yards on 16 carries.

The Colonels put some drives together. But the Bluebirds held them to 25 percent (3-of-12) on third-down conversions and 33 percent (1-of-3) on fourth down. On the other side, Highlands converted 6-of-13 (46 percent) on third down and converted its lone fourth-down attempt.

"Every down is a big down," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "The guys just flew around. I give all the credit to the guys. They were just into it. We didn't want to give up the big play. We got them off the field when we needed to get them off the field and won the game."

Turnovers again made a huge difference as the Bluebirds did not have any in the game and recovered three Colonel fumbles. Senior linebacker Jared Dougherty recovered two of them and junior defensive back Sam Taylor had the other.

"It's always a close game against CovCath," Taylor said. "Whenever we can help out our offense with turnovers, it turns around the game and gives us all the momentum."

Taylor also made a crucial stop on fourth down at the Highlands 30 late in the first quarter. CovCath tried to run sophomore Grant Dyer off right tackle on a 4th-and-1. But Taylor stopped him in the backfield.

Highlands had taken a 3-0 lead with 7:19 left in the first quarter when Dougherty booted a 38-yard field goal. Following the crucial stop, Highlands drove down and scored when Hergott hit Miller seconds between two CovCath defenders for a 17-yard pass with 49 seconds left in the quarter to give the Bluebirds a 10-0 advantage.

Dougherty then recovered a CovCath fumble on an option play to give Highlands good field position. He later kicked a 28-yard field goal to give the Bluebirds a 13-0 advantage to start the second quarter.

The Colonels put together a drive right before halftime. Mayer found Cam Pitzer on the left side of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:29 left in the half to cut the lead to 13-7.

Highlands tried to score before halftime. But a few passes to the goal line just missed and Dougherty's long field-goal attempt fell short.

The Bluebirds tried to pull away in the second half. Hergott found Miller for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 8:29 left in the third quarter and Dougherty booted a 43-yard field goal with 3:46 left in the quarter to put Highlands up 23-7.

Highlands went up 30-7 with 11:28 left in the game when Kendall broke loose for a 28-yard touchdown run. But CovCath made its move starting with a Best 6-yard touchdown run with 8:41 remaining. Freshman Casey McGinness scored the two-point conversion to trim the lead to 30-15.

CovCath did not attempt any onside kicks late in the game. But after a Highlands punt, Mayer threw a sideline pass to Ian Summe. Summe juked a Highlands defender then raced 68 yards down the right sideline for the score to trim the lead to 30-22 with 4:44 remaining.

"They sped it up there on the one drive and they moved the ball down the field and made a bunch of plays," Jones said. "We had opportunities to get them off the field, but didn't. Once they get on that side of the field, they have just four downs. Maybe we were trying too much to run out the clock. We were being more aggressive earlier. Sometimes that happens."

Highlands moved on to the state semifinals to face Pulaski County (12-1) on Friday. The Bluebirds have won 10 straight semifinal games. But this could be the toughest opponent since that last loss to Rockcastle County, 45-6 in the 3A semifinals in 2002.

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