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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Highlands Again Uses Spring Ball to Find Friday Night Players

Warmer Weather Big Reason Bluebirds Have Spring Ball in April

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior-to-be wide receiver Ethan Houze returns a kick during a junior varsity contest at Cincinnati St. Xavier last season. Highlands spring football begins April 10.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association is letting football teams hold their spring practices for 10 days over a three-week period following a day when school is in session for no more than two hours.

Teams can start them as early as the Monday following the school's elimination from post-season basketball play all the way to the last day of school. The Highlands Bluebirds decided to start spring ball on April 10 and go the three following days that week. That follows Spring Break.

Campbell County YMCA. 

"We've been doing it this way for a while," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "What we've found is when we would do it right when basketball was over, I wouldn't call it a problem. There was some uncertainty as to when it would start. It was nice to know exactly what day we were starting and the biggest thing at the end of the day was weather."

The KHSAA first let football teams hold spring practices in 1998. The Bluebirds have held it in March in the past and wound up practicing in snow storms. The temperatures could range from 20 degrees to 65 degrees.

Highlands has 12 weeks to do weight room training from January to Spring Break. Weinrich pointed out that schools in some states such as Florida and Georgia hold spring ball in May so college coaches can come watch.

"Typically if we do it after spring break, we tend to get nicer weather," Weinrich said. "When you're out there trying to teach and start from the beginning, you like them to concentrate on what you're saying and not worry about it being 20 degrees and snowing. It's a nice break-up to the off-season."

The Bluebirds won seven state championships and finished state runner-up the other time between 2007 and 2014. But after going 8-6 and losing in the Class 5A state semi-finals in 2015, Highlands fell to 3-8 in 2016 and lost in the first round of the 5A playoffs before going 6-6 last year and losing 35-34 at South Oldham in the second round of the playoffs.

Highlands came several plays away from going 9-4 last year. The returning players are trying to help the Bluebirds rise back to the level of domination the 23-time state champion Bluebirds are used to seeing.

"It has been a really good off-season. There are a lot of guys showing up every day," Weinrich said. "They're really competing with themselves, competing with one another whether it's in the weight room or even just trying to make sure warm-ups are better than they've ever been."

The Highlands coaching staff let the players play at one position on one side of the ball one week during spring practice last year and another position on the other side of the ball another week. Weinrich said the players will do a number of different drills this spring. One drill may have one player running the route as a wide receiver then defending it the next play.

"It's really nice to see guys in different spots and see what they're capable of doing because so much of it is getting guys in the right positions," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It's not so much about what you're running. Spring ball lets us do that."

The coaching staff knows it has to make sure the sophomores are placed not only in the right positions, but also at the right level. That's why Deaton said the coaches get to know the players personally through the weight training. Players generally play on one side of the ball starting their sophomore seasons after going both directions on the freshmen team.

"It's a lot to take in. There's a physical aspect to it obviously being younger than a 17 or 18-year-old. There's also a mental aspect to it," Deaton said. "There are more things they have to know and they have to know it quick. The juniors and seniors already know it. I think (spring ball) is a good confidence booster where they can see, 'I'm pretty good here. I'm not so good there. I can find my fit with the new team."

The Highlands defense returns a number of players with varsity experience. The Bluebirds will enter their second season running the 3-5 defensive scheme. The coaching staff has said the hope there is the Bluebirds will read their keys better helping them improve their yards allowed per game average allowed both rushing and passing.

Highlands had its struggles against both run-oriented misdirection and option offenses as well as spread offenses last year. The Bluebirds allowed 3,336 yards rushing overall and 1,482 passing for averages of 278 rushing and about 124 passing per game last year.

"We've been putting our work in (during) the off-season. We have a couple returning players from last year getting bigger and stronger," said Max Dierig, junior-to-be defensive lineman. "We'll leave the play-calling on the option to the coaches. Against an option offense like Greenwood, you just have to run the plays the coaches tell you to do, trust your keys and if you're filling in your hole, you have to hope someone else will too."

Highlands recorded 15 interceptions and recovered 15 fumbles defensively last year. Senior-to-be defensive back Bailey Armstrong had two fumble recoveries and two interceptions last year including a pick-six against Campbell County. Senior-to-be linebacker Alex Starkey had three interceptions for the Bluebirds including a pick-six in the first round of the playoffs against Oldham County.

Offensively, Highlands rushed for 1,717 yards and passed for 2,357 yards last year for averages of just more than 143 rushing and 196 passing. Rising senior Grady Cramer is the leading candidate to start at quarterback after starting both playoff games last year and running the Muddle Huddle offense on two-point conversions. Cramer completed 40-of-66 passes for 519 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.

The Bluebirds return varsity experience at running back with senior-to-be Cooper Schwalbach and juniors-to-be Sawyer Depp and Wes Bowling. Schwalbach led Highlands with 882 yards rushing on 161 carries for an average of about 5.5 per touch and 17 touchdowns.

The Bluebirds hope to find starters on the offensive line where only senior-to-be Trent Johnson returns with varsity experience. Seniors-to-be Austin King, Tyler Bracken and Nate Roberts return with varsity experience at wide receiver for the Bluebirds. Roberts had 15 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns and King had 10 receptions for 96 yards.

Highlands hopes to correct mistakes that stalled drives such as penalties or snaps over the quarterback's head during the off-season. The inability to convert first downs late in the game against Lexington Catholic cost the Bluebirds in a 21-18 loss.

"All the receivers have been working their tales off whether it's sophomore, junior or senior. Everyone is ready to get after it and do the work," said Ethan Houze, Highlands junior-to-be wide receiver. "We have a lot of amazing athletes on this team that can make plays. If we don't make mistakes and do whatever Coach Deaton tells us and trust whatever he says, we can be a dangerous team."

Another area of focus for the off-season has been on onside kicks. The Bluebirds did not recover crucial ones late in a 35-30 loss at Simon Kenton and in a 35-34 loss in the second round of the playoffs at South Oldham.

Highlands opens the season at home against Cooper on Aug. 17. Game time is 7 p.m.

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