CRESTWOOD - The end of this one felt similar to the losses against Lexington Catholic (21-18) and Simon Kenton (35-31).
The Highlands Bluebirds led the District 3 champion South Oldham Dragons (10-1) late in the fourth quarter. But the Dragons rallied to win 35-34 ending the Highlands season in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs Friday.
|Call Rob Hassman. 859-655-4430. This is an advertisement.|
"(The seniors) did a good job all year from January on," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They deserved so much more than this. It's hard to see them go, especially on a night like this. I just feel terrible that I didn't do a good job to get them in a better spot. They gave everything they had every single day."
The loss stemmed from things that have hurt the Bluebirds all season against good teams. The Highlands offense moved the ball well most of the game, but mistakes here and there left points off the board. The Bluebirds lost a fumble late in the game and had two interceptions compared to just one interception for South Oldham.
|The Campbell Co. YMCA. This is an advertisement.|
"I thought our kids did a really, really good job making plays when they needed to make play," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "There were just a couple series where we lost possession of the ball. In the playoffs, those possessions become very important. It's unfortunate we weren't able to come back from those losses."
The Bluebirds did make some plays defensively. But like all season, they struggled against misdirection and option teams.
Special teams also hurt. The Bluebirds converted on all four extra-point kicks, but the missed two-point conversion turned out to be the difference in addition to not recovering an onside kick late in the game.
The stats showed how even the game turned out to be. South Oldham ran 71 plays garnering 477 yards for an average of just more than 6.7 per play. Highlands amassed 472 yards of total offense on 72 plays for an average of more than 6.5 per play.
Highlands did better converting on third down going 7-for-12 there for 58 percent compared to 3-for-9 for 33 percent for South Oldham. The Bluebirds also converted 1-of-2 on fourth down compared to 1-for-3 for 33 percent for the Dragons.
Highlands junior Grady Cramer made his second straight start at quarterback. He completed 23-of-34 passes for 270 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Senior Nick Veneman led the Bluebirds with eight catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Nate Roberts added five catches for 72 yards.
The dynamic duo in the backfield in senior running back Larry Wilson and junior running back Cooper Schwalbach had another big game taking advantage of another nice game by the offensive line. Schwalbach had 100 yards rushing on 15 carries and a touchdown and four receptions for 13 yards. Wilson rushed for 94 yards on 13 carries and caught three passes for 29 yards and a touchdown. Wilson averaged 7.2 yards per carry and Schwalbach averaged 6.7.
The Bluebirds 3-5 defense knew it would see a steady dose of sophomore Keaton Martin out of South Oldham's triple-option offense. Martin finished with 182 yards on 20 carries for an average of 9.1 yards per play and four touchdowns. Junior running back Colton Bowlden added 106 yards rushing on eight carries for an average of 13.25 yards per carry. Sophomore JT Benson also hurt the Bluebirds on sweeps going for 78 yards on five carries and a touchdown for an average of 15.6 yards per carry.
The Dragons went to a spread offense late in the game and moved the ball downfield well. Senior quarterback Drew Zaubi completed 8-of-17 passes for 116 yards including four to senior Drake Silcox for 58 yards.
The game started out with South Oldham moving down the field. Martin finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Dragons up 7-0.
But the Bluebirds answered on their first possession. On fourth down, Cramer hit Veneman on the right side of the end zone for the touchdown. The Bluebirds trailed 7-6 after failing on the two-point conversion in the Muddle Huddle formation.
Highlands took its first lead early in the second quarter. Wilson scored from four yards out.
South Oldham retook the lead when Benson took a sweep around the right side and scored from 46 yards out with 6:41 left in the half. But the Bluebirds led 20-14 at halftime after Wilson took a pass in the flats and scored from 14 yards out.
Highlands did have a chance to increase its lead at halftime. But Cramer's pass in the middle of the end zone was picked off.
"It was just a matter of missing a guy here or there or us just being a little bit off," Deaton said. "South Oldham played a great football game. We just weren't able to get the plays we needed there in the last two, three possessions."
|This is an advertisement.|
Highlands could not find a way to go up 20 points and the Dragons answered. Martin scored from 46 yards out with 2:46 left in the third to cut the lead to 27-21.
But on 3rd-and-long with 1:30 left in the third quarter, the Bluebirds came up with a huge play. Cramer escaped trouble on a broken play and found Veneman along the right sideline for a 54-yard score to give Highlands a 34-21 lead.
The Bluebirds held that lead until the 4:31 mark in the fourth quarter. Martin scored from five yards out then the Dragons recovered the onside kick and took the lead with about 1:30 remaining when Martin scored from a yard out.
"They went to the passing game and executed it as well as I'd seen on film to be honest," Weinrich said. "They did what they had to do to win."
The Bluebirds moved into South Oldham territory, but fumbled the ball. Luckily, Highlands had all three timeouts remaining and used them to get the ball back. But the Bluebirds could not convert a fourth-down play and the Dragons escaped victorious.
Highlands hoped for another shot at undefeated arch-rival Covington Catholic on Friday. Instead, the Bluebirds finished with their first .500 season since going 5-5 in 1952. Highlands still doubled up last year's 3-8 total and won one playoff game.
This marked the final game for 25 seniors. They are quarterback Carl Schoellman, wide receivers Veneman, Jared Wogan, Grant Summers, Griffin Huber, Chas Sand, Jason Paul, Jack Shultz, running backs Logan Aubrey, Wilson, offensive linemen Evan Owens, Michael Dunn, Josh Homer, Justin Merkle, Sam Sparks, Keaton Huddleston, defensive linemen Korbyn Poole, Nate Davis, Nick Biltz, linebackers Logan Seiple, Logan Sparks, Crosley New and defensive backs Ethan Sketch, Harrison Traylor and Joe Steiden. Steiden had an interception in the second half for his sixth of the season.
Box Score Link: