Bluebirds Find Defensive Spark in Shut-Out
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands sophomores Jackson Hagedorn (46) and Cooper Schwalbach (91) pursue Grant County's Austin Smith (44) in the game in Dry Ridge on Friday. Highlands won 50-0.|
But the coaching staff of the Highlands Bluebirds football team (2-7 overall, 1-2 district) made some noticeable changes with the 3-4 defense that paid in the 50-0 over the Braves (3-6, 0-3) on Friday in Class 5A, District 5 action. Those changes paved the way for the first shut-out for Highlands in 29 games.
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Highlands held Grant County to 68 yards on 49 plays for an average of about 1.4 yards per play. All but four of the Brave plays were runs.
"I just think you want to play hard and play the best you can every game," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "Confidence is a big thing. Winning and losing are both contagious things. You just have to get on the win side and maybe you can start putting some things together. We have to get better every week. We made huge steps forward. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but I think we have a long season."
The Bluebirds have tried to two-platoon players in recent years taking advantage of their depth. But against Grant County, several offensive lineman like junior Michael Dunn, senior Mitch Schry and sophomore Trent Johnson saw significant time on the defensive line as well rotating in with regulars there like seniors Connor Myers and Jacob Johnson.
The linebacker and secondary groups saw a lot of familiar faces. But sophomore Cooper Schwalbach saw a lot of playing time at linebacker and disrupted a number of plays in the backfield along with senior linebackers Dalton Cornett, Trey Bowden, Trent Webster among others.
"I'm not entirely sure if that's what (the coaching staff) is trying to do," Dunn said when asked if the staff is trying to put the best 11 players on the field. "I'm just trying to do what they ask me to do. I'm trying to do what I can do for the benefit of the team. I'm very happy for the opportunity to play defense. I've been wishing for that. It obviously worked (Friday)."
The Highlands staff moved senior Sam Taylor all over the field taking advantage of his consistent play. Taylor and the likes of senior defensive backs Bradley Greene, Kyle Rust, Ben Grothaus and junior Joe Steiden also helped out well with run support.
Senior Tanner Souder took most of the snaps at quarterback for Grant County. The Highlands coaching staff saw sophomore Caelan Nix do wonderful things at that position on film. But Nix did not play.
Souder mostly handed the ball off to two teammates with the same name of Austin Smith. The one wearing Number 44 is a senior and the other number 18 is a junior. Sophomore Reagan Patrick had one series at quarterback for the Braves.
"It definitely makes us give effort to try harder," said Michael Siska, Highlands senior defensive back. "We just had to fly around and run really fast (to the ball). We watched the film last week and they tried to go outside (against Dixie Heights). We practiced on that running around and got to it. They couldn't get anywhere."
Souder completed 1-of-4 pass attempts. But the one completion to the junior Austin Smith resulted in a loss of five yards.
Grant County tried to run its share of dives and sweeps against the Bluebirds. But the Bluebirds used their quickness advantage to shut down the plays around the end.
The Braves punted the ball five times back to the Bluebirds. Entering the game Friday, opponents punted just 11 times all season.
Avoiding the Wrong End of Highlands History:
The Bluebirds needed this win to avoid the fate of the 1939 Highlands squad that finished 2-8. That Highlands team beat Carrollton, 24-0 to open the season then lost a school-record eight in a row to the likes of Dayton, Bellevue, Newport, Lloyd Memorial, Ludlow and Covington Holmes before concluding the season with a 33-0 win over Dixie Heights. Opponents shut out the Bluebirds four times during that losing streak. Legendary Highland player and Head Coach Homer Rice was in the seventh grade that year.
While that team struggled to score at times, the struggles on defense of this year's team have been well-documented. Entering Friday's game, opponents outscored the Bluebirds, 383-237 for an average of about 48-30.
Highlands closed that scoring gap to less than 100 points Friday to 383-287. That average is down to about 43-32.
The Point-After Touchdown Game:
Highlands sophomore Nick Bowman took over kicking extra points this season. Bowman has had his fair share of struggles this year. But he made all six attempts against Grant County.
"It's a lot better when I'm able to make them. It keeps me going (strong) throughout the game and it gets my confidence up for the next one," Bowman said. "It was just kind of jitters at first with my first couple varsity games. I was working out the kinks and really (anything) mechanical."
Life on a Grass Field:
The Bluebirds played on a grass field for the first time this year. While it did rain some this week, Highlands did adjust well to the field. Siska said the Highlands defenders had to chop the feet more to avoid sliding.
"You have to make your cuts a lot sooner because it's obviously harder to get your footing on grass than it is turf," said Brady Gosney, Highlands senior quarterback. "Other than that, the unevenness also plays into a little effect as you saw with (Nick) Veneman tripping on that wide-open touchdown (opportunity)."
The Playoff Picture:
Highlands will travel to face the Louisville Doss Dragons (5-4) in two weeks to open the playoffs. Doss clinched the second seed out of Class 5A, District 4 with a narrow 22-18 win over Louisville Southern to earn the home game. Fern Creek won District 4 and will face Grant County to open the playoffs.
Covington Catholic (7-2) wound up beating Dixie Heights (5-4), 35-12 to capture the District 5 championship. CovCath last won the district crown in 2006 on its way to its last of five state championships. Dixie Heights will play host to Southern to open the playoffs and CovCath plays Louisville Fairdale. Atherton and Iroquois will not make the playoffs out District 4.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association approved a playoff rotation this past spring in the top two classes putting Highlands in Region 2 this season and next season. The down side to that is the Bluebirds could face five-time state champion Bowling Green in the state semifinals instead of the state championship like the 1995 and 2007 teams did.