|Highlands starts tough stretch against 6A competition with Scott County|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands offensive linemen Michael Dunn (73), Trent Johnson (65) and Sam Sparks (56) block on an extra-point kick against Campbell County.|
But following a stunning 24-21 last-second loss at the Campbell County Camels on Friday, Highlands finds itself 1-1 and trying to avoid the same fate as last year. The Bluebirds take on four teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 in Kentucky's largest Class 6A in the next four weeks.
Highlands lost all four contests to those opponents last year on its way to a 1-5 start. That marked the first time the Bluebirds started 1-5 since 1939 and the first four-game losing streak since 1948. The Bluebirds still rallied to finish 8-6 and make the Class 5A state semi-finals and avoided their first losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1955. That marked the program's 60th consecutive winning season.
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Highlands knows it may need to put together four solid quarters both offensively and defensively and more to beat the first of those opponents in the fifth-ranked Scott County Cardinals of Class 6A's District 7. The Bluebirds put together four nice quarters together offensively in the 52-42 shoot-out win over Cooper, but struggled in the first two turning the ball over three times in the loss at Campbell County. The Highlands defense played better in the first and second quarters against the Camels.
"The film doesn't lie," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "You go back and watch the film two weeks ago where we executed and we were hard to stop. This (past) Friday, we were hard to stop too. We completely stopped ourselves. I don't think there's any question about it. Any play we wanted to run, we felt like we had success. But you can't make mistakes. It's frustrating to watch. But you have to learn and you got to get better."
Scott County handed Highlands a 54-28 defeat in Georgetown last year. Bluebird senior quarterback Brady Gosney started on varsity for the first time in place of the injured Austin Hergott in that game. Gosney faced constant pressure from the 3-4 Cardinal defense. He completed 9-of-25 passes for 93 yards in the loss out of the Bluebird Spread offense.
Gosney has come a long way since that game. In two games, the Bluebird offensive line led by seniors Kyle Finfrock and Michael Davidson has blocked well for the Highlands skill position players. Highlands has rushed for 567 yards and passed for 259 this year.
Seniors Grant Murray and Jared Pulsfort have led the rushing attack constantly finding ways to earn extra yards. Murray has rushed for 267 yards on 45 carries and four touchdowns for an average of just less than six yards a carry and Pulsfort has 187 yards on 33 carries and four scores for an average of around 5.6 yards per run.
"Highlands is well-coached and solid," said Jim McKee, veteran Scott County Head Coach. "From watching film, it looks to me that the offensive line is very aggressive and really gets off the ball well. I'm really looking forward to seeing how our defensive line responds. We have four new starters up there this year. So with Highlands this week, (Cincinnati) Elder next week and then (Lexington) Lafayette, we can watch those guys grow and get better to set us up to have an awesome run for our district, region and state title runs."
Gosney has completed 18-of-29 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns to six different receivers. Junior Nick Veneman leads the Bluebirds in that department with six catches for 159 yards. Veneman had another crucial catch on 3rd-and-long against Campbell County to set up a score.
"We run our routes as hard as we can to try to get open," said Braden Posey, Highlands junior wide receiver. "We have to run our routes really precise. Usually some people don't run their routes hard all the time. We need to do that more this week because we need to make their defensive backs work because (some of them) play on both sides of the ball."
Defensively, Scott County has allowed 105 yards rushing and 343 passing. The Cardinals trailed 19-14 against Pulaski County before blocking a punt for a score and returning an interception against another.
"Pulaski County does a good job," McKee said. "(The Maroons) took it to us last week in the first half. It was very hot and I was proud of our guys hanging in there and giving us a good second half. But now we have to play a complete game to win this Friday."
Senior Kendrick Hamilton goes both ways for Scott County at both halfback and defensive back. Hamilton leads the Cardinals with 21 carries for 180 yards and three touchdowns for an average of just more than 8.5 yards per carry. Sophomore inside linebacker Berk Watts leads Scott County with 17 tackles and senior defensive end Cooper Watts has 14.
"They're the biggest school in Kentucky," Weinrich said. "They have plenty of guys on film that make us concerned all across the board. It feels like they don't make mistakes watching them on film. We have to be ready to execute at a level we haven't executed at this year."
Senior inside linebacker Brance McKinney has also given Scott County solid defensive play with 10 tackles and junior defensive back Sam Sutton leads the Cardinals with two interceptions for a total of 44 return yards including the one returned for a touchdown against Pulaski County.
The Cardinals are known for their vaunted traditional Wing-T offense during McKee's tenure as head coach there that started in 1997. They consistently lead the commonwealth in rushing and have put up 767 yards combined in 47-20 victories over Lexington Tates Creek in Georgetown and a 48-19 victory at defending Class 5A runner-up Pulaski County last week.
"You can't make big mistakes in big moments and make mental mistakes that cost your team," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "That's obviously one of the things every coach tries to eliminate. You get some penalties sometimes by being aggressive. But when it's not aggressiveness, it's really an issue. We'll just continue to work at what we're doing and continue to get better each week. We got a lot better within a week. Some younger guys are stepping up. That helps out a lot."
Scott County outgained Highlands, 419-290 in total offense including 230-197 on the ground last year. The overall total was 377-71 in favor of Scott County at halftime. Highlands also runs a 3-4 defense.
"We just have to read our keys, be there with the ball and tackle them," said Noah Kremer-Stegman, Highlands senior linebacker. "We've been working on that a lot in practice this week and doing our jobs when the ball is going away from us."
The Cardinals have five different backs who have rushed for at least 119 yards on the season running behind an offensive line led by sophomore Bryan Hudson and senior Jesse Hamby. After Hamilton, junior halfback Brice Fryman has rushed for 165 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown for an average of about 10.3 yards per carry and senior fullback Caleb Demus has 158 yards on 16 carries and two scores for an average of just under 10 yards a touch. Senior fullback Jacob Burton has added 30 carries for 130 yards and two scores averaging about 4.3 yards per carry and junior halfback Bryce Lawson has rushed for 119 yards on four carries for an average of about 30 yards per carry including a season-long 60-yard dash.
"Last year, we just didn't (do our jobs)," Jones said. "Hopefully, it'll be a big difference this year and have trust in it. All these games we have on our schedule are designed to help us. They definitely do. The Wing-T relies on misdirection. If one guy doesn't trust his key, he's out of the play. They've blocked one guy by sending one the other way."
But Scott County does not hesitate to throw the ball. Second-year starting quarterback Josh Davis can keep teams honest with his arm. Davis has completed 13-of-23 passes for 271 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His top target has been sophomore Glenn Covington. Covington, who also plays defensive back, has six catches for 147 yards. Fryman also has six catches for 48 yards and two touchdowns. Covington also plays some defensively.
The Highlands defense had several costly penalties in the second half of the loss at Campbell County. The Bluebirds have allowed 399 yards rushing and 447 passing. Junior linebacker Dalton Cornett leads the Bluebirds with two fumble recoveries including one for a touchdown and senior defensive back Kyle Rust owns the team's lone interception.
Special teams could also be the difference if the game is close. Highlands kicker Nick Bowman made all three extra-point attempts last week and punter Cam'Ron Johnston pinned the Camels inside their 10-yard line with another strong boot last week.
"If you're punting, it's because you didn't get the first down so they get the ball back," Weinrich said. "We pinned (the Camels) again this weekend. I thought we had a fumble on the 2-yard line, but it didn't go our way. Still, just the ability to put it down there has been huge so far."
Highlands is 1-2 all-time against Scott County. The lone win for the Bluebirds over the Cardinals in school history came in 2012 by a 60-37 score.