But the Highlands Bluebirds (5-5 overall) and Oldham County Colonels football teams (6-4) did familiarize themselves with each other at the Oldham County 7-on-7 Tournament this summer. They will battle to advance in the playoffs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
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The Bluebirds enter the playoffs on a two-game winning streak while the Colonels have won three straight. But Highlands has played a tougher schedule that includes one victory over a team with a winning record in 6-4 Campbell County. None of the teams Oldham County has beaten has a winning record. Opponents have outscored the Bluebirds, 317-294 on the season.
"There for a while, we were playing the same teams year after year," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "It never gets old being in the playoffs. It makes for a long weekend because you're completely unfamiliar with them. But on the flip side, they're not familiar with us. It's an exciting change."
Oldham County hired Head Coach Michael Fox after last season and he helped guide the Colonels to their first winning season since going 7-5 in 2010. Oldham County lost to the John Hardin Bulldogs three straight years in the Class 5A playoffs between 2008 and 2010 including a 36-14 decision in the 2009 region title game. Highlands led by Austin Collinsworth and Patrick Towles later beat John Hardin, 35-7 in the Class 5A state championship game at Western Kentucky University in 2009.
Fox came to Oldham County after spending three seasons as an assistant for the state power Louisville Trinity Shamrocks. The Colonels tied for second with Bullitt East and Bullitt Central for second in Class 5A, District 3, but took the third seed out of the district based on the district's tiebreaker format.
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Both teams run Spread offenses. Highlands averages 173.2 yards passing per game and 137.1 rushing. The Bluebird offensive line led by seniors Keaton Huddleston, Sam Sparks, Josh Homer, Justin Merkle, Mike Dunn and junior Trent Johnson has been holding its own consistently throughout the season.
"We're all ready to go," Sparks said. "A lot of that is everyone saying, 'We're not going to quit' and keep moving throughout the game, staying on blocks and not getting tired mentally as well as physically. When you can wear a team down with a run in the first and second quarter, you can turn three-yard gains into eight-yard gains. You can turn eight-yard gains into 40-yard runs and keep going."
Highlands has added another dimension offensively with both senior running back Larry Wilson and junior Cooper Schwalbach healthy and in the backfield together. Schwalbach has 676 yards rushing on 134 carries and 16 touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry. Wilson has 535 yards rushing on 81 carries for an average of 6.6 yards per touch.
Highlands did not throw the ball much in the rainy conditions against Boone County. But Highlands senior quarterback Carl Schoellman has completed 155-of-257 passes for 1,633 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and junior Grady Cramer has completed 7-of-12 for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
Eight different players have at least 10 catches for the Bluebirds. Senior Jared Wogan has the most catches with 36 forin 456 yards and three touchdowns and senior Nick Veneman has 34 for 530 yards and eight touchdowns. Highlands rested Veneman for the Greenwood and Boone County games after he missed the second half of the Covington Catholic game.
"I think it's been pretty cool to watch us each week," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "The kids are responding so well. They are getting better and stronger every week. That's a lot of times what you want as a coach, but not always ends up happening. It is for us currently so we're real excited about it."
Fox said the Colonels have not seen any team with the speed and physicality the Bluebirds possess since the first half of the season. Fox admitted Oldham County had a slow start against Highlands in the 7-on-7 Tournament this summer. Fox hopes that doesn't happen Friday even though 7-on-7 tournaments don't directly translate to the playoffs.
"There are many playmakers," Fox said. "The offensive line does a great job getting off the ball and they finish blocks. (Schoellman) is very decisive with his reads and he can stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. The kicking game is also a weapon so we have to be good in coverage and with our returns so they don't flip the field on us."
The Colonels are allowing averages of about 192 yards rushing and 81 passing per game out of their 3-4 defense. They've outscored opponents, 260-164 on the season with their biggest loss coming by 10 points, 16-6 to District 3 champion South Oldham on Sept. 22.
Senior linebacker Dustin Foree leads the Colonels with 68 tackles. Senior defensive back Treyton Pervis is second with 62 to go with a team-high three fumble recoveries and sophomore linebacker Preston Dykes has 61 stops. Junior defensive back Jacob Ratliff leads the Colonels with four interceptions this year. Oldham County has 14 fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions on the season.
"They definitely do a good job of running to the ball and get involved with the ball, especially their secondary and linebackers," Deaton said. "They're not shy or bashful. They play aggressively."
Oldham County averages about 137 yards rushing and 146 passing per game. Junior Lucas Jones has been the feature running back going for 871 yards on 161 carries and six touchdowns for an average of 5.5 yards per carry. The Colonels have used Jones in Wildcat formations at times this year. Oldham County has used Jones a lot in one-back, four-wide receiver sets with the quarterback under center. The Colonels also put three wide receivers on one side and another on the other side. There have been plays where Jones motions to a slot and takes the ball on a counter.
"It's very similar blueprints of what Trinity's offense tries to do," Weinrich said. "They try to isolate guys. They try to outflank you. They try to get the ball in the hands of their athletes in a hurry. They really spread you thin. You have to be really sound at what you're doing and you have to make tackles in space with what they're doing."
But senior Daniel Calderon has recently returned from injury and Fox describes Calderon as a more physical runner. Calderon has 242 yards rushing on 58 carries for three touchdowns and an average of just more than four yards per carry.
Oldham County senior quarterback Erix Edwards has completed 80-of-150 passes for 1,112 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Senior Zach Young leads the Colonels with 22 catches for 358 yards and six touchdowns.
But the Colonels try to be balanced like the most successful teams in Kentucky have done over the years. Five players have at least 14 catches for Oldham County. Junior Jalen Moore has 21 catches for 440 yards and five touchdowns and senior Chase Samples has 21 receptions for 331 yards and eight touchdowns. Ratliff has 19 catches for 141 yards and a score.
Highlands hopes to have its entire starting secondary back in its 3-5 scheme for the playoffs in addition to senior defensive lineman Nick Biltz. Seniors Harrison Traylor, Joe Steiden and junior Bailey Armstrong did not play against Boone County or Greenwood. The Bluebirds are allowing averages of 282.5 yards per game rushing and 119.5 passing.
"It's hard to sit out for sure, but it's getting better," Steiden said. "I feel like I'm ready to go more than ever. Oldham County is basically a mirror image of our offense. We've practiced against our offense all season, all summer, 7-on-7 so we're ready for it. We know what we should do. If we just stick to our keys, we should be fine."
But Highlands saw sophomores Jacob Brass, Hunter Ahlfeld and junior Casey Greene do a nice job in the secondary the last couple games. Junior Will Salmon filled in nicely on the defensive line beside senior Nate Davis and sophomore Zach Lewin in addition to Johnson and Dunn. The linebackers are relatively healthy now.
"We haven't rested anybody," Weinrich said. "Every able-bodied person has played every chance they could play. Not many of those guys are going to be back again. The guys that are playing are doing a great job, getting more confidence and getting more experience. We have to show up Friday night and play who's ready to go."
Highlands has taken the ball away from opponents six times in the last two games and hopes to continue to steal possession in the playoffs. Junior linebacker Alex Starkey leads Highlands with three fumble recoveries including one that went 67 yards for a touchdown against Boone County with senior linebacker Crosley New and Armstrong recovering two each.
Steiden leads Highlands with four interceptions and Traylor has three with Armstrong recording two. Traylor, Armstrong, Greene and junior defensive lineman Ben Sisson have one pick-six each this year. But Sisson is out for the season.
Fox is familiar with the atmosphere at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. He came there as an assistant with Trinity in 2014 for a scrimmage and was impressed with the venue.
"We are preparing like any other week," Fox said. "This is the first playoff game for every player on our team so staying in our routine is going to be key. Who and where we are playing are two things we can't control. I hope the weather is better than last Friday and at the end of the night, we leave everything we have on the field."
The winner takes on District 3 champion South Oldham (9-1) in the next round a week from Friday. South Oldham earned a bye into the next round.
Highlands has won all three meetings in school history against Oldham County. The Bluebirds beat the Colonels, 39-5 in district action in 2004 and 29-20 in district action in 2003. Highlands also beat Oldham County, 21-8 in the region championship game in 2003 before losing 44-10 to Boyle County in the Class AAA state championship game.