|Bluebirds Gearing Up for Challenge Against Arch-Rivals|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior wide receiver Nate Roberts breaks free for a touchdown against Dixie Heights in the fourth quarter.|
Then last year, the Highlands Bluebirds football team struggled to a 3-8 record for its first losing season in 60 years including the second-longest losing streak in school history at seven straight. The arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels put a punctuation mark on that streak with a dominating 63-26 win in Fort Thomas and ended the Bluebirds' 15-game winning streak in the series.
|This is an advertisement.|
RELATED: Highlands-Dixie Notebook, Birds Roll to Big Victory
The Colonels came into the season with high expectations and have not disappointed. They are 7-0 and the top-ranked team in Class 5A. CovCath has outscored the seven opponents, 283-56 for an average margin of victory of nearly 32.5 points. No one has scored more than 17 points on the Colonels and only two have scored double digits against them.
"They have a lot of talent. There's no doubt," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "In a lot of different spots, they have a lot of experience. A lot of these guys have been starting since they were sophomores. They've been seasoned in varsity games for a long time and it definitely shows."
The closest defeat for CovCath came on the road on Sept. 8 at Kings (Ohio), 35-14. The Colonels enter the game Friday at 7 pm. in Park Hills off a 30-7 win over 13-time Indiana state champion Indianapolis Chatard.
"Obviously, everything is a process," said Eddie Eviston, CovCath Head Coach. "These kids have gone through the process rather well. They're buying in to what we're doing and they're not afraid to work. That's the greatest thing about this group. They're grinding through everything we're putting them through. I think we're starting to see that type of product out on the field."
After losing by 51 points at Scott and 22 to Ryle, people began to ask when the next time the Bluebirds (3-4 overall, 1-0 District 5) will beat the Colonels will be. But the Bluebirds put together their most complete game of the season in a 47-0 shutout of the Dixie Heights Red Colonels. Weinrich said the Bluebirds have to clean up some things after that win before Friday.
"That's what you try to do," Weinrich said. "Preparing for CovCath, preparing for Dixie is like two different weeks of practice. They're polar opposites in terms of offensive styles and how they approach what they're doing. Besides the basic fundamentals, the basics, the starts, defeating their blocks and using their hands, there is nothing similar between the two weeks. It is a challenge from that standpoint."
Emotions tend to run high in rivalry games. But Highlands senior linebacker Crosley New said it is important to keep them in check.
"You just have to focus on the game and focus on what we're trying to get done," New said. "If we do that, we should be fine. We have to play hard. They're good this year. We struggle in size. But it's not all size. I think if keep our technique and read our gaps correctly, we can put up a fight against them."
Opponents are barely outscoring the Bluebirds, 218-211 on the season for averages of about 31-30. Teams are averaging just more tan 283 yards rushing and 120 passing against the Bluebird 3-5 defense.
But the key to the big win Friday and two games they lost in the last minute has been the return of a number of injured linebackers. Highlands saw sophomore Brycen Huddleston make a huge impact in his first action of the year. Huddleston recorded a nine-yard sack, recovered a Dixie Heights fumble and made a number of plays at the line of scrimmage. Senior Logan Sparks and sophomore Mason Schwalbach also returned against Dixie Heights.
The Colonels had their way with the Bluebirds offensively last year as their linemen continuously knocked the Highlands defenders to the ground. The Highlands defensive line led by seniors Nate Davis, Nick Biltz, Korbyn Poole and junior Ben Sisson have given the Bluebirds more consistency there. Junior linebacker Alex Starkey is tied for the team lead with two fumble recoveries on the season.
CovCath does not have as big of an offensive line as last year. But Weinrich said the Colonels have done a great job keeping opponents off the skill position players.
The Colonels are led by the one-two punch of senior quarterback AJ Mayer and junior running back Casey McGinness. Mayer can throw the short, medium and deep routes. CovCath averages about 205 yards rushing and just under 214 yards passing per game.
"He's got the total package," Weinrich said of Mayer. "Some of the throws he's made this season, you just don't see them often at this level. He's a very impressive quarterback. You have to be sound and make sure everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing. You have to make them earn what they get. You can't give them any freebies. You can't blow an assignment because if you do, he'll find it and make you pay. It's a huge challenge. That's for sure."
Mayer has completed 89-of-142 passes for 1,486 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Mayer and McGinnis are two of 16 Colonels with at least one carry this year. McGinnis has rushed for 828 yards on 117 carries and eight touchdowns for an average of just more than seven yards per touch. Mayer has 174 yards rushing on 27 carries for an average of about 6.5 yards per touch and six touchdowns.
Twelve different Colonels have receptions this year. The two leading receivers are junior Jack Coldiron with 17 catches for 390 yards and five touchdowns and senior Malachi Pike with 19 catches for 289 yards and five touchdowns.
When Highlands has put teams in 3rd-and-long situations, great things have happened. The Bluebirds have used turnovers to beat the Colonels in the past. They have 11 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries on the season. Senior defensive back Harrison Traylor has three interceptions and a fumble recovery on the season with junior defensive back Bailey Armstrong recording two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Senior defensive back Joe Steiden still leads Highlands with four interceptions, but may not be available Friday. Junior Casey Greene saw a lot of action at defensive back against Dixie Heights.
The Bluebirds average about 120 yards rushing and 216.5 passing per game offensively as the offensive line continues to block well. Highlands is typically a quick-strike offense, but taking more time off the clock would keep the Colonel offense off the field more.
"We have had some pretty good games passing and running the ball," said Justin Merkle, Highlands senior center. "We are looking to improve on the mistakes we made against Dixie to be able to be efficient in both."
Senior Larry Wilson and junior Cooper Schwalbach played a full game together at running back against Dixie Heights marking the first time that has happened all season. Schwalbach has rushed for 384 yards on 89 carries and nine touchdowns for an average of about 4.3 yards per carry. Wilson has rushed for 283 yards on 44 carries for an average of 6.4 per touch.
Highlands quarterback Carl Schoellman has completed 120-of-190 passes for 1,471 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. But Highlands does use junior Grady Cramer at quarterback on two-point conversion tries and had him in the game there in the second quarter. Cramer threw an 8-yard touchdown strike to Nick Veneman with 8:30 left in that quarter.
Veneman is one of 13 players to catch a pass for Highlands this year. He's coming off a four-touchdown performance against Dixie Heights. Veneman torched the Dixie Heights secondary for five catches for 153 yards. Veneman has 34 catches for 530 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.
Highlands has four wide receivers with 10 or more catches this year. Senior Jared Wogan has 26 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns and senior Griffin Huber has 14 receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown with Cramer hauling in 10 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown.
"We have quite a few guys on offense that can make some plays," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We have confidence in our guys. If we can find match-ups that we like, we'll try to take advantage of them whether it's running or throwing."
CovCath runs a 3-4 defense. The Colonels are allowing averages of just more than 100 yards rushing and just under 122 yards passing per game.
The Colonels are led by senior linebacker Kam Butler, sophomore defensive lineman Michael Mayer and senior defensive back Adam Schneider. Butler leads CovCath with 38 tackles and Michael Mayer has 37. Schneider has a team-high three interceptions including one returned for a touchdown.
"These guys are working well together," Eviston said. "Defensively, you have to be able to trust the guy next to you (that) he's going to do his job. That's what these guys have been doing. They've been having success in shutting people down. Obviously, it's fun to watch our defensive unit out there because they do fly around."
The number 50 is a huge motivating factor for both sides. The next Highlands win in the series will mark the 50th all-time against Covington Catholic. On the other side, CovCath will be shooting for its 19th in the series and first time with back-to-back regular season wins against Highlands since doing it five straight years between 1990 and 1994.