|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Nick Bowman (19) battles for yards after picking up a fumble against Simon Kenton in JV action last year. Junior Gavin Downard|
After facing Louisville Trinity for years, the Highlands Bluebirds football team has taken on the Cincinnati St. Xavier Bombers from the rugged Greater Catholic League South for four straight seasons to prepare for the regular season. The scrimmage at 7 p.m. Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium will be the first opportunity the Bluebirds have to show how far they've come since last year's rough 3-8 campaign.
St. Xavier under Head Coach Steve Specht just made the playoffs with a 5-5 record in the regular season. But the Bombers strung together five wins on their way to their third state championship in school history. St. Xavier beat Cleveland St. Ignatius, 27-20 in double overtime of Ohio's largest Division I state championship.
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"That's what's so good about playing a team like this," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They're going to execute at a high level even now in the first week in August. There's no hesitation. You have to trust what you've been told and trust what you see and go with it. You can't do anything other than that."
Sean Clifford took his talents to Penn State for the Bombers. But senior Chase Wolf returns and has verbally committed to Wisconsin. Wolf will play behind a young offensive line. But senior slot receiver Cameron Specht returns after hauling in 68 yards for 655 yards as a junior.
Highlands moved a number of players around on defense. Juniors Ben Sisson and Korbyn Poole moved from linebacker to the defensive line. In the past, Highlands has not run its full arsenal of plays to keep the first few opponents guessing going into the regular season.
"You have to go off last year's film. Coach Specht and I talked," Weinrich said. "They gave us a good idea of what they're going to do. They're going to be a spread offense, which is a good thing for us to prepare for. It's something we've seen all summer so we don't have to do much special prep in terms of anything unique. We can just focus on what we have to do for ourselves."
One of the main things the Bluebirds tried to re-establish in the off-season was solid team chemistry. Players admitted it was not there last year.
"Coach Weinrich is a very good coach. I'm sure he'll have something up his sleeves if something doesn't go our way," said Bailey Armstrong, Highlands junior defensive back. "We'll be able to adapt to whatever (opponents) throw at us. The main thing you have to do is buy into what (the coaches) say and be fully committed to what the coaches are telling us every day in practice whether it be in the weight room, on the field or in the locker room. That's what makes Highlands football."
The Highlands offense will employ the spread offense again this year, although the variations of it have changed over the years depending on personnel. Senior Carl Schoellman will start at quarterback after helping the Highlands JV squad to a 6-3 record last year. Highlands averaged just more than 156 yards rushing and just under 245 passing last year.
"That's the number one goal is to make sure we're able to line up right and execute our plays the way we've been practicing them," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We want to make sure we're rotating off the field well and we're keeping a good pace of play. We've seen guys in practice against ourselves. That gives us a pretty good idea of what we got. But we'd like to see our guys against other really good players in a different look just to see who's going to be some of our best football players."
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"I think my main job on this team this year is to get the ball to the play makers," Schoellman said. "We have some great, great players who can do good things with the ball. As long as I'm able to feed them and keep them all happy, I think we're going to have a really strong offense."
The key for Highlands will be for the offensive line to protect for Schoellman and the skill position players. Highlands returns experience on the offensive linemen such as the likes of seniors Sam Sparks, Josh Homer and Michael Dunn. Senior Keaton Huddleston also moved from the defensive line to the offensive line.
Junior Grady Cramer will also see time at wide receiver. Highlands assistant coach Kevin Sipple indicated in the spring that Cramer would see the field on varsity with is 6-foot-4-inch height. Donovan McCoy (2011) and Beau Hoge (2013) also played wide receiver on varsity as juniors before they stated at quarterback as seniors.
"I've played wide receiver in the past so it's nothing new for me," Cramer said. "It's really fun with these guys. Everyone comes and competes every day and makes everyone better. We're just ready to step on the field."
St. Xavier has run the 3-3 Stack defense in previous years. The secondary may be young, but the Bombers return several good defensive linemen led by seniors Blake Bacevich and Bobby Jefferson II. Bacevich had 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss and five fumble recoveries last year. He has verbally committed to Cincinnati. Jefferson had 53 tackles, six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.
Deaton said he's aware teams could double or even triple-team Veneman. But one of the reasons he burned defensive backs downfield last year is teams had to respect the entire field with Jared Pulsfort and Grant Murray's running abilities. Seniors Larry Wilson, Logan Aubrey and junior Cooper Schwalbach hope to pick things up with carries this year.
"If they want to (double or triple-team one player), that's fine with us because we have a lot of really gifted guys running around," Deaton said. "They're all just really good football players and very athletic. They're very dangerous in their own right."
Highlands may not have been ahead of St. Xavier on the final scoreboard. But the Highlands varsity did outscore the Bombers in the 2014 scrimmage.