Starting in January, the coaching staff of the Highlands Bluebirds football team said the players hit the workouts determined to have a good season. The wait for it to begin ends Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium against the Cooper Jaguars at 7 p.m.
Highlands lost 19-14 at Louisville Ballard with 1:15 left on a 4th-and-14 play in a scrimmage a week ago. Watching film from that game, Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said the Bruins gained the majority of their 264 yards of offense because of something the Bluebirds did wrong. Highlands is entering its second season running the 3-5 defense.
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Ballard quarterback Austin Carr completed 10-of-22 passes for 192 yards mostly on short out and sideline routes. But Highlands had better success against them once they challenged those routes better. The Bluebirds saw senior defensive lineman Zach Lewin record three sacks with senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson and junior defensive lineman Conner Zell recording one each.
Highlands will need a similar effort to contain Cooper sophomore quarterback Jeremiah Lee. The Cooper coaching staff brought Lee along slowly before he took over the starting role after Cooper's bye week last year. Lee helped the Jaguars to wins over Conner and Boone County after a rough 0-7 start. Lee completed 33-of-76 passes for 561 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions last year. Lee also rushed for 503 yards on 114 carries and five touchdowns for an average of about 4.4 per carry. He is one of eight returning starters for the Jaguars on offense.
"We're working a lot on keeping (Lee) inside (the pocket) and in front of us," said Addison Reynolds, Highlands senior defensive back. "He's a big threat on the outside."
Lee has more experienced skill players around him. The Jaguars return their leading rusher in junior Anthony Whitchey (697 yards, five touchdowns) and receiver in senior Michael Armour (287 yards). Senior Michael Spencer and junior Michael Attabary anchor both lines. The Jaguars plan to trend more to the spread offense this year.
The 2-9 season marked the lowest win total for the Jaguars since their first season in 2008. Last season also ended a run of three straight winning seasons. Cooper finished state runner-up in 2012 and went back to the state semifinals in Class 5A in 2014. Highlands has won the last two meetings in the series after dropping the first-ever meeting, 37-13 in Union in 2015.
"Our seniors have really focused on their leadership and bringing the players together as a team," said Randy Borchers, Cooper Head Coach. "It started this year in the weight room and the leaders of our team have held the kids accountable so now it is coming more from the players and less policing from the coaches. Last year, we started so many young players and it took us a while to put all the pieces together for us to really understand what our players were capable of. It was a slow process in order to bring our youth along and even though our record did not show it, we feel that our team continued to improve throughout the season."
Highlands returns a number of linebackers led by junior Brycen Huddleston and senior Nick Bowman. Senior Bailey Armstrong returns to lead the Highlands secondary. But senior Casey Greene and juniors Jacob Brass and Hunter Ahlfeld played back there some last year. Ahlfeld also played at wide receiver against Ballard and had three catches for 38 yards.
The Highlands offense had just 138 yards against Ballard in the scrimmage. But Highlands played without its leading rusher from last year in senior Cooper Schwalbach. A number of other players such as juniors Wes Bowling, Sawyer Depp, Huddleston and sophomore Joe Buten received carries last week.
Senior quarterback Grady Cramer returns after starting the two playoff games at that position last year. Seniors Austin King and Nate Roberts are the leading returning receivers from last year. Senior Trent Johnson leads a revamped offensive line.
"It's about doing everything you did (against Ballard) better," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "Quite honestly, it's like that for every day so we just carry it on through the week. Our players are very responsive. They are very self-motivated. It's one of the best group of kids I've ever been around. It's really fun to be around them every day."
Ballard did put some pressure on Cramer last week. But the Bluebirds hope to limit that better this week.
"If I ever see Grady's in trouble, the first thing I do is I come right back to him," said Adam Weyer, Highlands junior wide receiver. "I don't want him to have the ball for too long. I don't want him to get drilled. It's for me getting the ball out of his hands so we can go down the field and make plays against anyone."
Highlands beat Cooper, 42-22 in Union last year. Schwalbach ran for 150 yards and four touchdowns in that game. Witschey ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns. But most of those yards came late in the game. Highlands controlled the line of scrimmage forcing Cooper to throw the ball. As a result, 2018 graduate Joe Steiden recorded a school record four interceptions.
"That's every sport, every game. If you're good, you can win right-handed," Weinrich said. "That's what they're going to try to do. They're going to try to win with their guy. You have to try to take their guy away. They're going to do what they do. We're going to do what we do and find out who's better. I can't imagine that they've worked harder than we've worked. That's what we've been priding ourselves on. That's what's going to carry us when it matters in the second half of a game in mid-August when it's going to be humid outside. We're not going to back down. I think we're going to be alright."
Cooper still runs a 4-2-5 defense. Attabary is the team's leading returning tackler with 67 stops last year. The Jaguars return five starters defensively.
"Our main philosophy doesn't change on defense," Borchers said. "We want to prevent the big plays and force teams to put drives together. We really emphasize getting nine guys to the ball on every play. It is very crucial to make sure we do not beat ourselves by giving up the big play, allowing yards after a catch, allowing yards after first contact or by aligning incorrectly."
This may mark the last time both teams open up against each other for a while. The two teams will be in the same Class 5A, District 5 with Boone County, Conner and Covington Catholic next year.