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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Highlands-Lexington Catholic Preview

State-Ranked Bluebirds, Knights Face Off in Lexington

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior defensive lineman Brennan White (99) pursues Ryle quarterback Keegan Stanken on Friday in Union. Highlands plays at Lexington Catholic on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Many believe the fear factor is back with the Highlands Bluebirds football team.

The great Highlands teams of the past have stood up in the face of huge challenges and this team has a grand opportunity to do that Friday in Lexington when the Bluebirds (3-1 overall) travel south to face the undefeated Lexington Catholic Knights (4-0). Highlands is ranked fifth in Class 5A in the latest Associated Press poll and LexCath is ranked third in 3A. Game time is 7 p.m.

This will mark the 10th meeting between the teams in program history. Highlands beat LexCath four straight times in the Class 4A semifinals between 2011 and 2014.

Longtime assistant and former University of Kentucky player Nigel Smith took over as head coach in February when Mark Perry took a job as the Director of Football Operations at Troy University (Alabama). Smith is just the fourth head coach in school history since the program started in 1991. Smith has been an assistant since 2003 and served as defensive coordinator on both the 2005 and 2007 state championship LexCath teams.

LexCath has outscored the opposition, 188-66 while Highlands has outscored opponents, 117-45. The record of the four Bluebird opponents including 6A's second-ranked Scott County (the only loss by a 28-7 score shortened by lightning) is 9-7 compared to 5-11 for LexCath.

"The young men we have have been close playing multiple sports since their elementary days," Smith said. "It is great to see that, not only because of the positive effects we see on the field, but the team is developing into a group of leaders inside the school building as well."

Despite the change in head coach, Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich noted one thing has not changed. The Knights like to use a variety of sets in the spread offense and make big plays. Their quarterback is junior Beau Allen. Allen has offers from a number of programs such as the University of Kentucky and Bowling Green State University (Ohio).

"With a quarterback like this, it's just a whole different game we haven't seen this year," Weinrich said. "He's so good at getting the ball where it needs to get to. He reads coverages really well. When he sees a void, he'll exploit it in a hurry. He has such a quick release. They have such a dynamic offense. A lot of high schools to be honest just run plays. These guys run plays based on what you're running. They have pattern concepts for different coverages so you have to try to anticipate what they're going to do. You have to disguise as best as you can without confusing yourself and that's a fine line."

LexCath is averaging just under 380 yards passing per game. Allen has completed 77-of-111 passes for 1,426 yards, 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Five Knights have 10 or more catches. Senior Nathan Schnurr leads the way with 17 receptions for 364 yards and four touchdowns.

"You have to be patient. You can't watch the quarterback," said Jason Noe, Highlands senior defensive back. "You have to stay on your receiver and watch him. You have to do your job no matter what. Whatever the coaches tell you, you have to do. Scott County is a good team. Ryle is a good team. You just have to play to your ability."

Allen is also a threat to run the ball. He has 21 attempts for a team-high 127 yards and a touchdown. He waited until the last second before taking off in the 54-13 win over Lexington Christian. The Knights average just under 103 yards rushing per game, but are not where they want to be in that department.

"We are constantly working to improve our running game," Smith said. "We would love to rush for more yards, but we have to be effective our run game no matter how many yards we have. The Highlands defense provides a steep challenge to us up front."

That Highlands 3-5 defense has stood tall this season allowing averages of just under 96 yards rushing and just more than 100 per game this year. The Bluebirds held the only common opponent between the two teams in the Ryle Raiders to just 82 yards of total offense. Ryle entered the game averaging 392 yards per game offensively.

"It just shows if we trust our keys and do what we're told to do, we can (contain) them," said Brennan White, Highlands defensive lineman. "Everyone's got to do his job because it doesn't work unless every person does his job to the best of his ability. We're the first line of defense, If (opposing skill position players) get by us, it's another 10-15 yards down the field before someone catches them."

It starts with the defensive linemen and linebackers putting pressure on quarterbacks and even creating turnovers. The Bluebirds have six quarterback sacks led by two from senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn, eight interceptions with senior defensive back Casey Greene leading the way with two and six fumble recoveries. Junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach has a team-high two fumble recoveries.

On the other side of the ball, the Highlands spread attack is averaging just more than 138 yards rushing and just more than 121 passing. The Bluebirds hit some deep routes against Ryle. Senior quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 46-of-84 passes for 470 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.

"It definitely brings another edge to the team," Cramer said. "Without the deep ball, we can't establish the running game. You can't establish the short passing game so it definitely gives us more to work with. Every catch we have is just another stepping stone to getting better. Obviously, the defense getting turnovers really helps us too with more chances to catch the ball and get in the end zone."

Ten different Highlands receivers have catches this season. Seniors Austin King and Nate Roberts have 12 catches each for 118 and 106 yards respectively. Roberts has three touchdown catches and King has one. Junior Hunter Ahlfeld has seven catches for 129 yards and three touchdowns.

"Our kids are now getting to the point where they've had a few games and are now getting comfortable figuring out how to get open or how to step to get that block just right," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "The more we can keep doing that, the better."

Senior Cooper Schwalbach continues to lead Highlands with 339 yards on 62 carries and three touchdowns for an average of 5.5 yards per catch. He had a 63-yard scamper around the right end to score on the first possession against Ryle.

Ryle moved the ball well against LexCath's version of the 3-5 defense in a 50-34 defeat. The Raiders rushed for 211 yards and passed for 215. Raider senior running back Kyle England rushed for 138 yards and quarterback Keegan Stanken completed all four passes for 133 yards and a touchdown with senior wide receiver Brandon Soden going for three catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Highlands held England to just 27 yards rushing, Stanken to just 69 passing and Soden to one catch for seven yards.

The Knights have allowed averages of just under 167 both rushing and passing this season. Brennan Emnett leads LexCath with 34 tackles. The Knights have four sacks, three fumble recoveries and nint interceptions on the season. Lexington Christian threw three interceptions in the loss Friday.

"Turnovers are never good, especially when your offense is that good," Deaton said. "If we can make sure we execute our plays without turning the ball over, we'll give ourselves a chance to play well in the game."

Highlands is developing solid depth this year. The junior varsity team is 4-0 on the season and the freshman team is 3-0. The Bluebirds had to play running backs and linebackers on the offensive line on the JV last year.

"That's really what you try to do in spring ball and the summer," Weinrich said. "We've really prided ourselves since I've been here on coaching everybody year-round and getting better all the time. We really emphasize to everybody you never really know so take advantage of your opportunities. We've got such a good group now. They really worked hard in the spring and summer and it's really carried over. That's what is really helping us is having depth at each position and be able execute actual runs and actual schemes."

Highlands leads the all-time series against LexCath, 7-2. The Knights escaped Fort Thomas with a 21-18 win scoring in the final minutes to record the victory. The only other LexCath win in the series came in 2005 by a 17-0 score in the Class 3A region championship in Fort Thomas.

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