"It's nice to feel like we're the team that helped get Highlands back on track," said Gavin Downard, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "We really our a family off the field. That makes a huge difference. In years past, we weren't as close. But this team is tight. We know that winning is fun. Once we get the job done, that's what's fun about it. We know throughout the week, we have to get down to business, work out the kinks and Fridays are fun. This is what we live for. I don't even know how to explain it."
But this year, the Bluebirds made sure those two games did not come down to the final minutes. They put both teams away in the second half beating Class 3A's sixth-ranked Lexington Catholic, 44-27 on the road and Class 6A's seventh-ranked Simon Kenton, 38-9. Highlands ended a three-game losing streak to Simon Kenton with the latest victory. Highlands also ventured to Ryle and won 40-3 ending three years of frustration against the 1-4 Raiders as well. Highlands also handed Class 6A's tied for ninth-ranked Campbell County (4-1) its lone loss so far.
"Our guys have been supporting each other for years," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "As long as I have been here, that's how it is. Whether you win or you lose, you have to keep playing together. You have to trust each other. I think we're continuing to do that right now."
The defense has been a huge key in the turnaround. The Bluebirds Highlands has allowed just 81 points, 676 yards rushing and 792 passing for averages of just under 113 yards rushing and 132 passing this season.
The Bluebirds are in their second year running 3-5 defensive scheme. Teams have tried spreading them out. But the Highlands defensive linemen and linebackers have done well disrupting teams in the backfield. The Bluebirds made LexCath and Simon Kenton drive the field and took advantage of their mistakes.
Highlands has recorded 11 sacks this year. Senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn leads the way with three with junior defensive lineman Zach Lewin and junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston recording two each.
The Highlands defense has also recovered nine fumbles and intercepted nine passes. Hagedorn and senior defensive back Casey Greene lead the way with two interceptions and a fumble recovery each. Junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach has two fumble recoveries. Hagedorn returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown against Simon Kenton and had a pick-six against Ryle.
Weinrich said the defense will not do anything out of the ordinary during the bye week. The Bluebirds will get back to some fundamentals and watch film this week.
"Everything we do at practice is about getting better at something," Weinrich said. "We go against each other a lot and even this week, our scheme defensively isn't what (Simon Kenton) ran. Our scheme offensively isn't what they ran. But we felt like we would get better as football players by going against each other. That's what we're going to continue to do. We're going to treat this week just like any other week in terms of what we're doing in practice, just keep getting after it, having fun and keep getting better."
The Highlands offense is not consistently moving up and down the field like it wants out of its version of the spread. The Bluebirds have scored on their first offensive possession in the five wins, but have struggled at times after that.
Highlands has rushed for 715 yards and passed for 909 averaging just more than 119 yards rushing and just more than 151 passing per game. Senior Cooper Schwalbach continues to lead the Bluebirds with 423 yards rushing on 89 carries for an average of about 4.8 per carry and five touchdowns. Cooper Schwalbach also has 10 catches for 87 yards.
"We'll really break some things down, get ready and get set for districts," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I know our guys will maximize the time that we have. It's going to be exciting to see where we're at for districts."
Highlands senior quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 72-of-133 passes for 844 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Senior wide receiver Austin King has the most catches with 19 for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Senior tight end/wide receiver Nate Roberts had 18 receptions for 219 yards and four touchdowns with junior Hunter Ahlfeld hauling in 13 for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
"We just have to keep working day-in and day-out, work on our footwork, make sure we're getting separation from good defensive backs," said Adam Weyer, Highlands junior wide receiver. "The O-line has to work. The only way we'll develop consistency is if we all keep working and we all keep getting better as a unit and not just by ourselves."
The next game for Highlands is Thursday, Oct. 4 at Dixie Heights at 7 p.m. in a Class 5A, District 5 game. The red Colonels are 0-6 after losing a tight one, 28-27 at Boone County on Friday. They have a home game against Cooper (1-4) on Friday at 7 p.m.