While the Highlands Bluebirds football team (6-5 overall) took care of District 3's Oldham County Colonels, 34-7 on Friday in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs, members of the District 3 champion South Oldham Dragons (9-1) sat in the stands watching. The Dragons were the only team in Kentucky's Classes 2A through the largest 6A to receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Three teams in Class 1A including nearby and defending state champion Beechwood received byes. That came as a result of not enough teams being able to fill in those slots after Eminence, Berea and Jenkins chose to drop out of district play this year and next year in addition to District 8's South Floyd consolidating with 2A's Allen Central to form Floyd Central and move to 3A.
But in 5A, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association let Grant County drop out of District 5 action this past off-season leaving the district with three teams. Even though District 3 and 4 in the Louisville area have six teams each, KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said there were no plans to put a team in that slot to fill the void for the playoffs.
The only thing the Bluebirds can do at this point is go down to Crestwood, take care of business, move on to the Region 2 title game and put the issue behind. The game takes place Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"We've talked," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "The only focus this time of year just like March in basketball is you just figure out a way to win one game and be fortunate to play again."
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"This is my eighth season at South Oldham, and we have been mighty blessed to accomplish a great number of firsts here," said Jamie Reed, Dragons Head Coach. "Offensively and defensively, we pride ourselves on being fundamentally sound. We try to make sure all 11 players are involved. We are proud of who we are and the way we do things at South Oldham. We are aware of Highlands' storied past and we are honored to have a chance to compete against one of the nation's great high school programs."
South Oldham has posted consecutive 9-1 regular seasons. The Dragons lost at defending Class 2A champion Christian Academy of Louisville, 28-14 on Aug. 18 to open the season and have not lost since then posting four shut-outs. South Oldham has outscored opponents, 415-74.
The Bluebirds played one of their best halves of the season in the first half of against Oldham County reeling off 34 straight points. They hope to have more of that Friday.
Highlands has outscored opponents, 328-324 on the season. The Bluebird Spread offense averages just under 138 yards rushing and just more than 171 yards passing.
The big question mark for the Highlands offense entering the game Friday is whether senior Carl Schoellman or junior Grady Cramer will start at quarterback. Cramer made his first varsity start in place of the injured Schoellman against Oldham County and completed 9-of-17 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Schoellman has completed 155-of-257 passes for 1,633 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year.
Cramer has completed 16-of-29 passes for 249 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. The versatile Cramer has mostly played wide receiver this year and run the Highlands Muddle Huddle formation on two-point conversion tries where the Bluebirds line up with many players to one side of the line of scrimmage or the other. Cramer has 16 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown on the season.
The Bluebirds have seen 13 different players make receptions this year. Senior Nick Veneman leads the way with 39 catches for 613 yards and 10 touchdowns with senior Jared Wogan going for 499 yards on 38 catches and three touchdowns. But seniors Griffin Huber, Grant Summers and juniors Nate Roberts, Austin King among others have also had big catches this year.
"No matter the quarterback, they both are pretty good. They both have a lot of key things that are similar," Wogan said. "We're really going to focus on fixing those mistakes we made in the second half, go from there, keep driving and keep making big plays like we've been known to do."
Wogan is referring to the penalties and negative plays the Bluebirds made in the second half on long drives trying to put the game against Oldham County away. They had two plays offensively where the ball sailed over Cramer's head for a huge loss.
"The further we go into the playoffs, the more than will come back to get us," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "They seem to be fine in most situations except occasionally when we get down to red zone situations. Our mindset shouldn't change. You should play the way just the way you always play. But sometimes when you're talking about a high school kid, they think more than they should sometimes depending on the situation. They don't need to. They just need to play football."
The Highlands offensive line blocked well again Friday against Oldham County. Seniors Keaton Huddleston, Josh Homer, Justin Merkle, Sam Sparks, Michael Dunn and junior Trent Johnson blocked the Oldham County defenders several yards behind the line of scrimmage and to the ground a number of times throughout the game.
That gave running lanes to the two main Highlands running backs in senior Larry Wilson and junior Cooper Schwalbach. Schwalbach has rushed for 782 yards on 146 carries and 16 touchdowns for an average of just more than 5.3 yards per carry and Wilson has 592 yards on 89 carries for an average of about 6.7 yards per carry. Wilson scored his first touchdown of the year against Oldham County.
South Oldham runs a 4-3 defense. The Dragons allow averages of 111.5 yards per game rushing and just under 62 yards passing. The Dragons rotate a number of players in and out and have some going both directions compared to Huber for Highlands. Dunn and Johnson also play some defensive line at times. Huber plays linebacker on defense.
The Dragons have 11 interceptions and 19 fumble recoveries on the season. Junior linebacker Mason Bowman has a team-high 66 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries for the Dragons and sophomore defensive lineman Tyrelle Love has 63 to go with an interception and fumble recovery.
"They've got a couple really good defensive players, particularly the corners," Deaton said. "They're disciplined and good at being disruptive on the ball. That's part of our offense. You have to be decisive with your reads, trust them and be quick with them, which I think we've done all year. That's not going to change this week."
The Highlands 3-5 defense will face a South Oldham triple-option attack Friday. The Bluebirds have struggled against option and misdirection teams this year. Greenwood senior quarterback Jackson Adams rushed for 295 yards and four touchdowns in the 47-35 Highlands win three weeks ago in the Veer offense.
South Oldham runs the ball 70 percent of the time averaging exactly 290 yards per game rushing and 106 passing. Nineteen different players have carried the ball for the Dragons. But sophomore Keaton Martin burts onto the scene last year as a freshman rushing for 1,558 yards on 182 carries and 19 touchdowns for an average of 8.5 yards per carry. This year, Martin has 1,033 yards rushing on 123 carries and 13 touchdowns for an average of about 8.4 yards per touch for about 42 percent of the Dragon rushes.
Martin made a huge run against Louisville Doss after a Doss defensive lineman ran past Martin's left on a dive play. Martin stayed behind his lineman then bounced to his left before going upfield for the the big play.
"It's helped playing some of those (option and misdirection) teams," Weinrich said. "Each one of them is unique. (The Dragons) don't really have as much Wing-T principles as a pure Wing-T. I heard (the triple-option) is what (Reed's) background is. (Martin) is really good. He runs really hard. He runs low to the ground and has a good center of gravity. They do a good job getting him the ball. If you're off, he's going to find the crease. He's real patient too."
The Dragon offensive line is led by seniors Brett Basham, Tanner Goodlett and Noah Budenaers. But the Highlands defensive line led by seniors Nate Davis, Nick Biltz and sophomore Zach Lewin made things happen against Oldham County and hope to do the same thing this week opening things up for linebackers such as Nick Bowman and Logan Sparks to make plays.
Nick Bowman said the Bluebirds have learned valuable lessons with discipline against Wing-T and option teams they've faced this year. The main thing is handling each individual assignment and trusting the teammates to do the same.
"As the season has grown, you really don't see the division between the grades," Nick Bowman. "There's not really seniors, juniors and sophomores. It's just our teammates. Everyone is brothers and everyone is family on our team. It's really nice to be able to focus on the one or two jobs that you have. It takes the pressure off you."
South Oldham quarterback Drew Zaubi has made great decisions all year. Zaubi has completed 52-of-110 passes for 935 yards, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Zaubi is the second-leading rusher on the Dragons with 351 yards rushing on 45 carries and six touchdowns for an average of 7.8 yards per carry. The leading receiver for the Dragons is sophomore Ethan Bednarczyk with 14 catches for 358 yards and four touchdowns.
Highlands has allowed averages of about 270 yards rushing and 124 passing defensively. But the return of key players from injury has helped there. The big one is sophomore linebacker Brycen Huddleston. Brycen Huddleston has a fumble recovery and a number of sacks and tackles for a loss since returning from injury on Oct. 6 against Dixie Heights. He has also returned two punt returns for a touchdown in the last two games.
The Bluebirds have been using turnovers to their advantage this year recording 15 fumble recoveries and 14 interceptions. Junior linebacker Alex Starkey has a team-high three fumble recoveries and an interception. Starkey returned a fumble for a touchdown against Boone County and returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown against Oldham County.
Highlands senior defensive back Joe Steiden recorded his team-high fifth interception of the year against Oldham County. Senior defensive back Harrison Traylor has three interceptions and a fumble recovery and junior defensive back Bailey Armstrong has two fumble recoveries and a two interceptions with senior linebacker Crosley New recovering two fumbles against Greenwood.
Highlands is 5-0 all-time against South Oldham. The last time the two teams met was in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs in 2006. The Bluebirds won 41-19. The two teams faced off in the same District 5 in the old four-class system between 2003 and 2006.