The opponent for the Highlands Bluebirds football team (3-7 overall) is one the Bluebirds have never faced in the proud 102-year history of the program. That is the second seed out of District 4 in the Louisville Doss Dragons (5-5) at 7:30 p.m.
Highlands last opened the playoffs on the road in 1995 at Lawrence County. The Bluebirds won four straight games on their way to a state runner-up finish to Bowling Green in Class 3A that year.
"Not only are we playing a game, we're playing a playoff game," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "If you win, you get to play again. If you don't win, you're done. Whether we're playing here, there or somewhere else, it's doesn't matter. That has no bearing on anything. They'd better be able to bring their own intensity and see the finality in it."
Doss has outscored the opposition, 287-202 for an average of about 29-20. The Dragons finished second in District 4 with a 4-1 record but went just 1-4 in non-district play. Doss never left Jefferson County for any of its 10 regular season games. The Dragons played just one team outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky's most populated county in South Oldham at home on Aug. 26. Doss played a good game against District 3 champion South Oldham (9-1) in a 34-26 defeat in the battle of the Dragons.
The Bluebirds will take their vaunted Spread Offense to Hayward Schartzer Stadium. Highlands has rushed for 1,527 yards this year and thrown for 2,409 averaging about 153 yards rushing and 241 passing per game.
"We have to get better at executing plays," Weinrich said. "You have to get better at getting on and off the field. We have to get better at lining up quicker. We have to get better at running more plays in a game. We've done a better job executing lately. At this time of the year, you can't have any costly mistakes that gives the other team the ball. Every play has to be executed perfectly at this time of the year."
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Highlands continues to find ways to move the ball. The Bluebirds used balance to beat Boone County, 48-28 on Friday to conclude the regular season. Senior quarterback Brady Gosney has completed 182-of-300 passes for 2,398 yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Highlands senior running back Grant Murray had a monster game against Boone County rushing for 175 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns and had a 27-yard touchdown reception. Murray has rushed for a team-high 842 yards on 147 carries and eight touchdowns for an average of about 5.7 yards per carry.
The Highlands quarterbacks have completed passes to 13 different wide receivers with seven hauling in 12 or more on the season. Junior Nick Veneman is 102 yards away from 1,000 yards on the season with a team-high 42 catches for 898 yards and 11 touchdowns. Veneman has been brutal on opposing secondaries downfield in 1-on-1 coverage. Junior Braden Posey is next for the Bluebirds with 37 catches for 387 yards and four touchdowns and senior Trent Buchert has 24 catches for 242 yards and three touchdowns.
"We just try to stick to what we know best and hopefully, every play we can move guys in front of us," said Kyle Finfrock, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "The game is basically won in the trenches. We've been undersized basically every game. We just have to play our hearts out."
The Doss defense has allowed 1,304 yards rushing and 773 passing on the season for averages of about 130 rushing and 77 passing per game. The Dragons run a variety of defensive formations mostly out of the 40 front.
"This is a young group of kids that play hard and want to get better each day," said Phillip Hawkins, Doss Head Coach. "Our (defensive backs) have been able to cover in Man (defense) most of the year which frees up (linebackers). We have also been able to pressure the quarterback with moderate success. Our kids will continue to play with intensity and speed."
Senior defensive back Steven Mack leads Doss with 72 tackles on the season and has the team's lone fumble recovery. The Dragons have recorded just six turnovers on the season with five interceptions. Sophomore defensive back Michael Richardson has four picks and junior defensive back Dquarius Nolan has the other one.
The 3-4 Bluebird defense has shown some improvement in recent weeks. But Highlands still struggled some against a bigger Boone County offensive line. Teams have outscored Highlands, 411-335 for an average of about 41-34. Opponents have rushed for 2,872 yards and passed for 1,722 yards per game for an average of about 287 rushing and 172 passing.
The Bluebirds will again face a balanced Spread attack that opponents have thrown at them all season. The Doss offensive line average almost 6-feet-3-inches and 268 pounds led by junior Charles Allen.
"They do a great job getting their play-makers the ball in space," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "Whenever you get your play-makers the ball in space, you give yourself a chance to score. (Allen) is one of the best offensive linemen we've faced. It's going to be a tall task. When you have guys who can get up the field quickly, it helps."
Doss has rushed for 1,797 yards this year and passed for 1,743 averaging about 180 rushing and 174 passing per game. Senior running back Hamilton Wilson has 1,204 yards rushing on 164 carries and 12 touchdowns for an average of about 7.3 yards per carry.
Junior quarterback Deon Pumphry has guided the Doss offense well this year completing 96-of-173 passes for 1,469 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Pumphry's top two targets have been senior Christian McClain with 47 catches for 828 yards and seven touchdowns and junior Traynor Terez with 30 receptions for 384 yards and six touchdowns.
"One mistake could mess up the entire play," said Zach Sisson, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "We try to practice hard and get better every day to get ready for the games on Friday."
But the Highlands defense has produced turnovers in the two recent games. The Bluebirds recovered two fumbles early and built a 21-0 lead against Boone County as a result.
"You have to trust what you're doing, play fast, come downhill and just get after it," Jones said. "That's the only thing you can do. If we create a wall, I think we'll be in good shape. Not giving up the big play will be the key this week. We still need to be physical. I think we did a good job last week."
Highlands has recovered 17 fumbles on the year and picked off three passes. Senior linebacker Dalton Cornett leads the way with seven fumble recoveries with senior defensive backs Bradley Greene, Kyle Rust and Sam Taylor recording one interception each.
Highlands hopes recent playoff success plays well into its favor. The Bluebirds own the state's longest streak of region championships with nine dating back to 2006 when they lost 25-15 to Covington Catholic in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs. They've won
Doss drove all the way to the Class 5A, Region 2 title game in 2008 before losing 42-28 to John Hardin. The Dragons have gone to the second round several times since with the latest one coming two years ago, but no further.
Highlands has won 24 straight first-round playoff games. The last loss this early in the playoffs for the Bluebirds came in a 20-14 loss to Montgomery County in 1991.