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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Highlands-Grant County Preview

Searching for a victory in Dry Ridge

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highland senior linebackers Carter Burke (29) and Dalton Cornett (41) pursue Covington Catholic quarterback AJ Mayer (left) in the game in Fort Thomas on Friday. Highlands travels to Grant County this Friday for a 7 p.m. game.
The trip to Dry Ridge will be more than just another stop in district action unlike previous trips there for the Blue and White.

The main things the Highlands Bluebirds (1-7) want to do Friday against the host Grant County Braves (3-5 overall) is experience that missing thrill of victory and build momentum going into the Class 5A playoffs. Highlands has not tasted victory since beating 6-3 Cooper, 52-42 to open the season. The seven-game losing streak is the longest for the Bluebirds since 1939. The 1939 squad lost a school-record eight in a row. Game time is 7 p.m.

"That's all we can do," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We can either show up or quit. Nobody's quitting so we're going to show up each day and figure out what it is we can get better at that day as a group, as individuals, on either side of the ball."

The Bluebirds have never lost to the Braves in seven meetings in school history. But like many opponents this year, they know the Braves will be looking to take their best shot at a victory on their home field. Highlands handled Grant County, 56-22 in Fort Thomas last year.

"One thing you can rest assured, we will not be overconfident against Highlands," said Jamie Dalzell, first-year Grant County Head Coach. "Regardless of the losing streak, Coach Weinrich and his staff do a great job. Highlands remains one of the premier football programs in the state."

Highlands will be playing on a grass field for the first time this season. The road games at Ryle, Campbell County, Louisville St. Xavier and Dixie Heights are made of turf like David Cecil Memorial Stadium.

Both teams lost to Covington Catholic and Dixie Heights in district play so Highlands and Grant County know they will be hitting the road in the first round of the playoffs. That will be the first time the Bluebirds experienced that since 1995. The winner will avoid facing the winner of District 4 to open the playoffs.

Opponents have outscored Highlands, 383-237 for an average of about 48-30 against a tougher schedule. The Braves have been outscored, 248-113 for an average of about 31-13. Grant County's three wins have come against Class 2A Carroll County (2-6), Owen County (4-4) and Rowan County (1-8).

The Highlands offense again stumbled out of the gate before finding some success late in the second half against Covington Catholic. A few bad punts did not .help the defense's cause. Highlands has 1,213 yards rushing for an average of about 152 yards per game and Bluebird quarterback Brady Gosney has completed 161-of-263 passes for 1,940 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for an average of 243 yards passing per game.

"I thought we played pretty well Friday," Weinrich said. "There were a couple plays we didn't execute in some key situations early on fourth down. We put ourselves in a hole, which against a team like CovCath, you can't do. We're just trying to make sure that every single guy on every single play is tuned in to what they need to do. Football is 11 guys at a time. That's what's great about it. Every guy has to do his job or the play is not going to be successful."

The Bluebirds have seen 12 different wide receivers haul in a pass. Junior Nick Veneman continues to lead the way with 34 catches for 692 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior Braden Posey also has 34 catches on the year for 360 yards and three touchdowns with senior Trent Buchert hauling in 20 passes for 185 yards.

Highlands received some bad news in the running game this week losing senior Jared Pulsfort for the year to injury. Senior Grant Murray continues to lead the Bluebirds with 630 yards on 123 carries for an average of just more than five yards per carry and five touchdowns. Juniors Larry Wilson, Logan Aubrey and sophomore Cooper Schwalbach may be called on to carry the ball more.

"You just have to play hard and do the best you can," Schwalbach said. "(The older running backs) have taught me a lot about running the ball."

The Braves run a 40 front defense. They are led by junior linebackers Blake White and Matthew Grubbs.

The Bluebird 3-4 defense is still trying to find its identity. Covington Catholic's offensive linemen knocked the Highlands defenders on their backs some creating holes. The Bluebirds have allowed 2,548 yards rushing and 1,485 passing this year for averages of 318.5 and about 186 yards per game.

"We can work on putting ourselves in better position," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "We can find ways to not give (opponents) our bodies even if they are bigger than us. Both CovCath's tackles are 6-6, 6-7. You have to have good feet no matter where you are. We practice on grass so I don't think that will be an issue. It does seem like the game is slower on grass than turf on film."

Grant County lines up in Double-Wing sets with a single running back in the backfield. Sophomore Calean Nix has played a lot of quarterback for the Braves. They've tried a number of guys running the ball as well. Senior Tanner Souder has a fair amount of carries this season for Grant County.

"I think they have found a bit of an identity, but I believe (Nix) got hurt so we'll see if that changes their offense," Jones said. "He's a nice athlete who does a good job running their offense. He's pretty quick. We have to line up and be more physical than them."

The Highlands defense could wear the Braves down because the Bluebirds try to make sure players are not playing on both offense and defense. Although last week, Highlands put Murray in at linebacker at times. Senior linebacker Dalton Cornett leads the Bluebirds with four fumble recoveries with senior linebacker Trey Bowden recording two and senior defensive back Kyle Rust with another two. Rust and senior defensive back Sam Taylor have one interception each.

"It's about coming out with the same mindset. You just have to get better each day," said Luke Meyer, Highlands senior linebacker. "Hopefully, those days keep stacking up on top of each other. All you can do is improve. You can't dwell on the past."

The Bluebirds conclude the season against Boone County on Oct. 28 before heading into the playoffs. The Rebels once again find themselves winless this year.

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