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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Highlands-Dixie Heights Football Preview

Highlands looks to keep district winning streak alive

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands sophomore Nick Bowman (19) boots an extra-point kick while junior quarterback Carl Schoellman (35) holds. Highlands travels to Dixie Heights at 7 p.m. on Friday.
The new season may have seen its different kind of struggles.

But like last year's team that started 1-5, fans of the Highlands Bluebirds football team are hoping to see a similar run. The 2015 squad won seven straight after that start before losing 41-31 to Pulaski County in the Class 5A state semi-finals in Fort Thomas. Highlands finished 8-6 last year winning all three district games to win its 19th district championship in 20 years before clinching its 60th straight winning season and claiming its ninth straight region championship.

But this year's team will have to earn it like last year's team did. It starts Friday on the road at Dixie Heights (3-3 overall) at 7 p.m. in Crescent Springs to open Class 5A, District 5 action.

Highlands will try to extend a 31-game winning streak in district action against an improved Dixie Heights squad. The red Colonels have already equaled last year's win total. Highlands also beat Dixie Heights in the second round of the playoffs last year.

The tough schedule could benefit Highlands in this game. All six of the Class 6A non-district Highlands opponents have records of .500 and above for a total of 26-9. The Bluebirds have been outscored 280-191 for averages of just below 47-32.

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On the other side, the three Dixie Heights wins have come against teams with a combined record of 3-16 in Scott, Milford (Ohio) and Boone County. But their three wins have come against teams with a combined record of the exact opposite of 16-3. The Colonels have been outscored, 143-120 for an average of just under 24-20.

The two common opponents are the Cooper Jaguars (5-2) and undefeated Simon Kenton Pioneers (6-0). Highlands beat the Jaguars, 52-42 on Aug. 19 in Fort Thomas and lost to the Pioneers, 77-53 on Sept. 23 at home before entering its bye week last week.

Both teams hurt Dixie Heights in the passing game. Cooper quarterback Jarod Lonaker completed 14-of-26 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns. Jaguar standout wide receiver Dante Hendrix torched the Colonels with eight catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns on fade routes.

Simon Kenton put up the same type numbers offensively that it has all season against Dixie Heights. The Pioneers rushed for 199 yards and passed for 245.

Those numbers could bode well for a Highlands Spread offense that has rushed for 1,003 yards as a team and passed for 1,453 for averages of about 167 yards rushing and 242 passing per game. Senior quarterback Brady Gosney has completed 115-of-180 passes for that total with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions for that passing total and rushed for 113 yards on 35 carries and four touchdowns.

"The guys really understand the system so we are able to tweak routes, tweak blocking assignments, make adjustments at the line if necessary," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We don't do a lot so they've been able to get good at what we do and adjust in the game when we've needed to."

Highlands has had success when the offensive line has opened up rushing lanes for seniors Jared Pulsfort and Grant Murray. Murray has 440 yards rushing on 89 carries and four touchdowns for an average of about five yards per carry and Pulsfort has 368 yards rushing on 72 rushes and eight touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry.

Gosney has completed passes to 10 different receivers. Junior wide receiver Nick Veneman has been strong with the post routes hauling in 29 catches for 626 yards and eight touchdowns. Three other wide receivers have double-digit catches in senior Trent Buchert with 18 for 173 yards, junior Braden Posey with 17 for 165 yards and junior Griffin Huber with 11 for 105 yards.

"We feel like everyone out there can make a play," Huber said. "As we look at the other defense, we don't feel they can key on one guy because we're all really good. If they double-team, that's going to leave someone else open to make a play."

Dixie Heights will counter with a 4-2-5 defense similar to what Cooper runs. The Colonels are led by senior defensive back Zach Borchers, senior defensive lineman Roy Bowers and senior linebacker Austin Rice.

"They hadn't really shown a lot of pressure," Weinrich said. "This past week, they really got after Cooper and gave (the Jaguars) a lot of trouble. Cooper was really struggling offensively. We have to be ready for that. (Dixie) was getting penetration."

The Highlands 3-4 defense hopes the bye week helped shore up things defensively. Opponents have torched the Bluebirds there consistently all season with big plays.

"We're getting better," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "We had to take a step back and focus on the fundamentals, getting back to the basics. When you've not had a whole lot of success, you have to get good at the things you're good at. Fundamentals are things you have to improve on. That's what we're focused on. Sometimes you take fundamentals for granted. You have to be sound fundamentally. It doesn't matter what you do if you're not."

The Bluebirds have forced 12 turnovers on the season. Senior linebacker Dalton Cornett has three fumble recoveries including one for a touchdown to lead Highlands with senior defensive backs Kyle Rust and Sam Taylor recording one interception each. Taylor also has a fumble recovery.

"We just have to fly around, trust our keys and trust what we're doing," said Max Abanto, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "We need to shoot our hands and make every tackle great. We're (also) trying to cover our gaps. If we just do that, I think we'll do well."

Dixie Heights runs a Wing-T power offense. The Colonels have had success running the ball with seniors Jose Torres, Cameron Barrett and Giante Hicks. Their quarterback is senior Noah Smedley. Torres rushed for 186 yards on 20 carries and three touchdowns in the win over Scott and 288 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns in Dixie's win over Milford.

"(Torres) is really good," Jones said. "He gets downhill really quick. He has a low center of gravity and he really hits the hole hard and gets going. They do a great job blocking for him. They try to put him in positions to be successful and he's doing a great job."

Highlands enters the game 64-8 all-time against the Colonels having won the last 13 meetings. The last Dixie Heights win in the series came by a 21-14 score in overtime on Sept. 27, 2002. This meeting be the 73rd meeting between the two programs tying Dixie Heights with Covington Holmes as the most common opponent in 102 seasons of Highlands football.

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