Highlands will head back to the scene of that loss Friday in Union against the Cooper Jaguars at 7:30 p.m. in the Skyline Crosstown Showdown. The Jaguars beat the Bluebirds, 37-13 two years ago in Union in the first-ever meeting between the two squads before Highlands took out Cooper, 52-42 last year in a shoot-out in Fort Thomas.
That marked the lone win the Bluebirds have recorded against a team with a winning record in the last two years. The Jaguars finished 7-5 last year losing 49-20 at Class 6A, District 5 rival Ryle in the second round of the playoffs after knocking off Lexington Bryan Station, 35-7 to open the playoffs.
Both teams will have a number of players that will be playing for the first time on Friday Nights. But Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich and staff have long believed in keeping things simple and Friday is no exception.
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"This is what you've worked for," Weinrich said. "Don't let it be bigger than it actually is. We were nervous Friday. I understand that. That's over with. The fun part is getting to play the games. We're trying to sell them on that. Go around, have fun and make plays."
The Highlands 3-5 defense will employ the new scheme in attempting to bounce back from last year's tough season where opponents averaged about 304 yards rushing and 176 passing per game. The Bluebirds showed sign in the scrimmage loss to Cincinnati St. Xavier despite allowing 399 yards of total offense.
The Bluebirds made a number of tackles in the Bomber backfield. Defensive linemen Ben Sisson, Zach Lewin and linebackers Alex Starkey, Gavin Downard and Crosley New recorded sacks or tackles for a loss.
"When we fill in gaps, that really helps the defensive line," Downard said. "We need to do that better. It frees people up to make plays."
The Cooper coaching staff attended the scrimmage and Head Coach Randy Borchers left impressed with that defensive play. Borchers said it will be a challenge for the Jaguar offensive line that will be breaking in four new starters. Cooper averaged just under 157 yards rushing and just more than 263 passing last year.
The Jaguars will also be breaking in new skill position players. Quarterback Jarod Lonaker and leading rusher Jaden Jackson graduated along with standout defensive back and wide receiver Dante Hendrix. But senior running back and safety Justin Schlarman returns after rushing the ball 18 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns last year and catching 28 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Cooper throws multiple formations at its opponents.
"Over the past few years, we have had that one athlete that we knew would make a big play for us when we needed one," Borchers said. "This year, we have many question marks and as I have told our players all summer, we will do some really good things at times and we will fight adversity at times. We just need our guys to stay together and fight through adversity. Obviously, kids feed off big plays so we will need to find that one player that we can go to when we need a boost. We feel that we do have some athletes. We just need to find a way to get the ball in their hands."
On the other side, Highlands hopes to run the ball better this week out of its spread offense. The Bluebirds rushed for minus-three yards against St. Xavier. But the Highlands offensive line gave senior quarterback Carl Schoellman time to throw. The Bombers had to commit pass interference penalties on the Highlands wide receivers to prevent big plays.
"We have some guys up front. They're all physical kids so I don't worry too much about the physicality," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "This week, they're improving some of the things we did okay on Friday. I think they're going to take a big step forward this week."
But the blocking is not just all on the offensive linemen. The wide receivers play a big role in blocking defensive backs to open lanes.
"We need to block just as well as the line because if the running backs bounce it out, we have to hold blocks outside that way they can have running space," said Griffin Huber, Highlands senior wide receiver. "That will open up the passing game and all that."
Schoellman completed 13-of-30 passes for 146 yards including four to senior Nick Veneman for 44 yards. Cooper has a grass field but that typically does not bother the Bluebirds.
"I think they key is to not overthink it and not play outside of what you're supposed to do," Deaton said. "Just like defense, if you're supposed to run a specific route then you need to run that route because they all work well together with one another. Don't over analyze something simple because you have a different defensive guy in a different spot. Do what you're supposed to do and trust what everyone is supposed to do and offensively, it'll work out."
Defensively, Schlarman made a team-high 83 tackles last year in the 4-2-5 Jaguar scheme and intercepted five passes. Deaton said he was also impressed with senior linebacker Jalen Holder. The Jaguars allowed averages of just more than 170 rushing and just under 123 passing last year.
"Highlands definitely has some great athletes who can hurt you in the open field," Borchers said. "We really need to be disciplined and take great angles to the ball. If we do not run to the ball and get 6-8 guys to the ball carrier every play, then it is going to be a long night. Highlands always seems to find a way to get their best athletes the ball and just let them make plays. We know that in order to have a shot to win the game Friday night, we will need to force Highlands to put drives together and can not allow them to hurt us with the big play."
Both head coaches have been impressed with the way the teams have come together in the off-season. Highlands vowed to fix that after last season.
"They're all working hard. They're working for each other," Weinrich said. "They're working on getting better every single day. They've bought into getting better every day or you're wasting your time. That means making plays, doing your job and not trying to do everyone else's. I think that was the big key Friday."
Cooper has enjoyed success since starting opening as a school in 2008. The Jaguars won Class 5A region championships in 2012 and 2014 losing to Bowling Green in the state championship in 2012 and to eventual state champion Pulaski County in the 2014 state semi-finals. The Jaguars lost to Simon Kenton in the Class 5A region title game in 2015.
"I feel this is the best our team chemistry has been for at least the past three to four years," Borchers said. "I always try to see what the pulse is in the locker room before and after practice. The past few years, our players have been in and out of the locker room immediately after practice. This year, our players are hanging out longer in the locker rooms after practice, joking around more with one another and seem to have just a much stronger bond. This is a direct correlation to the leadership we have with this team. We only have 12 seniors but they have done a great job of accepting their roles as leaders and keeping a very positive attitude around the team."
The Bluebirds have dropped 20 season openers in 102 years and are coming off just thee ninth losing season in school history at 3-8 last year. But the last two Highlands teams that dropped their season-openers still managed to win region championships before losing in the state semi-finals. The 2002 squad lost 45-6 at Rockcastle County in the Class 3A playoffs and the 2015 squad lost 41-31 to Pulaski County in the Class 5A playoffs.
A Highlands win would mark the 880th in program history good for the second-most in the country. Only Valdosta (Georgia) has more with a record of 913-223-34.