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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Class 5A state semifinals

Pulaski County rallies past Highlands, 41-31

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands linebacker Trey Bowden (17) holds on to Pulaski County junior wide receiver Jake Johnson (2) in Friday's state semifinal game. The Maroons won 41-31.
It looked like the Highlands Bluebirds football team had control.

Bluebird senior Taylor Perez recovered a fumble on 4th-and-1 by Pulaski County senior running back George Gregory at the Maroon 32. Minutes later, Highlands senior Jared Dougherty booted a 26-yard field goal to put the Bluebirds up 31-14 with 7:23 left in the third quarter.

But the defending Class 5A champion Pulaski County Maroons (13-1 overall) dominated the rest of the game outscoring the defending 4A champion Bluebirds, 27-0 on their way to a 41-31 5A state semifinal victory. Highlands finished the season 8-6 losing six games in a season for the first time since 1948.

Highlands will not be playing for a state championship for the first time since 2006. The Bluebirds had won seven state championships in the last eight seasons and had won 10 straight state semifinal games dating back to a 45-6 loss to Rockcastle County in the 3A state semifinals in 2002.

Offensive efficiency has helped the Bluebirds wear down opponents in its proud history. But formidable opponents did that to them this season with balanced offenses.

Pulaski County ran 80 plays gaining 548 yards of offense compared to 60 plays for 388 yards for Highlands. The Maroons averaged 6.85 yards per play compared to 6.25 for the Bluebirds.

"We didn't play real well in the first half. We made a lot of mistakes," said John Hines, veteran Pulaski County Head Coach. "We didn't execute real well. We were behind defensively. We just came out in the second half and played Maroons football. We executed better. I think we wore them down up front a bit and were able to run the ball better in the second half. I'm proud of our kids. They never give up. They've been down several times this year and have found ways to win. To come back against this team in this stadium is a big deal."

The Maroons rushed for 243 yards and passed for 305. The leading quarterback and wide receiver in 5A did their usual things for Pulaski County. Senior quarterback Riley Hall completed 26-of-33 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown and junior wide receiver Jake Johnson had 10 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown.

"We knew it was going to be down to the end," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "We had to get up as much as we could because they were going to come back at some point. They have a really great receiver in (Johnson). Their quarterback is just amazing. They were able to run on us. We shut their run game down in the first half. That was the difference."

But Gregory ended up hurting the Bluebirds just as much. Gregory had 22 rushes for 130 yards and four touchdowns to go with six catches for 104 yards. Gregory had most of the carries after Pulaski County's leading rusher in junior Jaylon Conwell went out with an injury with 4:25 left in the second quarter.

"(Gregory) is actually a better runner," Jones said. "He did a good job of getting downhill. That's what gave us a bit of a problem in the second half. They ran a lot of plays. We had to play a lot of plays on defense. When you play a lot of plays, guys get a little tired. Things like that. I'll give (PC) a lot of credit."

Highlands ended up rushing for 186 yards and passing for 202. Bluebird senior running back Nick Kendall helped the Bluebirds build a 28-14 halftime lead rushing for 146 yards on 24 carries, but the Maroon defense held him to just 15 yards rushing in the second half.

"I don't really know what they did different defensively," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They made a couple adjustments that were giving us a bit of fits. We were trying to counter it the best we could. We ran out of time."

Highlands did have some success in the passing game. Senior quarterback Austin Hergott completed 14-of-21 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. But the Maroons capitalized on two interceptions in the second half. Senior Eric Miller had three catches for 56 yards and a touchdown to lead the Highlands wide receivers.

The Bluebirds scored on the game's first possession. Kendall broke free for 68 yards on two plays to take the ball to the Pulaski County 12. Hergott found Miller for a crucial first down on 3rd-and-6 to the Pulaski County 1 and Kendall took it in to give Highlands a 7-0 advantage just 1:55 into the game.

After the teams exchanged punts, Highlands made a huge play defensively. Dougherty intercepted a pass that went off Johnson's hands and returned it to the Pulaski County 9-yard line. Kendall ran it in from three yards out with 4:29 left in the first quarter to give the Bluebirds a 14-0 advantage.

Pulaski County made sure this game did not get out of hand early. Hall drove the Maroons down the field and scored around the left side from four yards out to cut the lead to 14-7 with 1:44 left in the first quarter.

But the Bluebirds responded. Hergott scored from four yards out on a read-option run to put Highlands up 21-7 with 9:31 left in the first half.

The Bluebirds made a big defensive stop with 5:53 left in the half. Senior Austin Mayhew stopped Gregory at the Highlands 33 on 4th-and-1.

But the Maroons scored on their next possession. Gregory scored for the Maroons to cut the lead to 21-14 with 2:04 left in the half.

But Highlands answered with 1:39 left in the half. Hergott found Miller open on a go route down the right sideline to put the Bluebirds up 28-14 at halftime.

Pulaski County drove into Highlands territory in the final minutes of the first half. But on the last play of the game, Hall could not find anyone open so he threw the ball away facing pressure from the Highlands defensive line.

"At halftime, we felt like we were still in good shape," Hines said. "If we get the game to a one-score game, we felt we could win it in the fourth quarter. We felt like we had some things that would start clicking for us in the second half. That's kind of what happened."

The Pulaski County rally started with 3:57 left in the third. Johnson caught a Hall pass over two Bluebird defenders to cut the lead to 31-21.

The Maroons trimmed it to three after a fake punt run fell three yards short of a first down. Gregory ran it in from seven yards out with 1:56 left in the half.

Then the Pulaski County defense made a turnover. On third down, senior safety Christian Holman stepped in front of a Hergott pass to record the interception with 57 seconds left in the third.

The Maroons took the lead for good with 10:22 left in the game. Gregory ran it in from a yard out to give Pulaski County a 35-31 advantage.

But on the next Highlands possession, Kendall recorded a bobbling catch on the other side of the 50. But the Bluebirds could not convert on fourth down and Pulaski County took over on its own 38 with 8:15 left in the game.

Highlands got the ball back but could not get a first down so the Bluebirds punted the ball back to the Maroons with 5:04 left in the game. But Pulaski County converted some key first downs and finished the drive when Gregory walked in for a 3-yard touchdown with 1:31 left in the game. A missed extra point left the final score 41-31.

Highlands graduates 29 seniors. But the Bluebirds can pull up from successful junior varsity and freshmen teams. The junior varsity Bluebirds finished 7-2 overall and the freshmen finished 7-3.

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