The Highlands Bluebirds (6-1 overall), still ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press poll, plays host to Class 5A's top-ranked Covington Catholic Colonels (7-0) in what could be the best match-up between the two teams with a combined 30 state championships in several years. Game time is 7 p.m. Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
"That's why you play the game - to compete at the highest level," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They're a very good team. We feel good about our team. We feel good about how we continue to get better week by week by week. I think our guys are ready to go."
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"Personally, I think it starts with the culture where it doesn't matter what your record is. It could be 15-0. It could be 8-8, whatever it is," said Eddie Eviston, CovCath Head Coach. "It's just a matter of working every day to be the best that I can be. If the best doesn't win, then at least you don't have any regrets. But if you work really hard, then could reach your maximized potential, who knows? You might have a chance. We're still trying to build a program here from a staff standpoint. We've had some success along the way. You can't really worry about other teams. We have to concentrate on who we are and go from there."
The Bluebirds have been working back toward that level this season. They hope to prove they are back there with a strong showing Friday in what could be a huge sell-out crowd.
Both teams have quality wins on the season. Highlands has defeated three Kentucky teams ranked in the Associated Press poll in Simon Kenton (5th in 6A), Campbell County (10th in 6A) and Lexington Catholic (7th in 3A). Their only loss is to Class 6A's sixth-ranked Scott County in a lightning-shortened 28-7 defeat. The Bluebirds have outscored the opposition, 248-87 compared to 313-87 for CovCath.
Both teams have beaten the Union duo of Cooper and Ryle. The Colonels have quality wins over two out-of-state opponents in 6-1 Kings Mills Kings (Ranked 9th in Ohio's second-largest Division II) and Indianapolis Bishop Chatard (Top-ranked team in Indiana's 3A AP Poll).
Both teams like to be balanced so they can take what defenses give them in their spread offenses. Both teams have been stout on defense this year. The Highlands 3-5 defense is allowing averages of 104 yards per game rushing and 135 passing.
The Bluebirds have made plays all over the field. It starts up front with pressure from the defensive line with guys like senior Ben Sisson, Gavin Downard and juniors Zach Lewin and Conner Zell. Then the linebackers such as seniors Jackson Hagedorn, Nick Bowman, Alex Starkey, juniors Brycen Huddleston and Mason Schwalbach fill in with defensive backs such as seniors Bailey Armstrong, Casey Greene, junior Jacob Brass and sophomore Jason Noe holding things down in the back. Schwalbach has a team-high two fumble recoveries and Hagedorn is tied with senior Greene with a team-high three interceptions.
Highlands has 13 quarterback sacks this year. Hagedorn leads the way with three with Lewin, Huddleston and Starkey recording two each. Hagedorn has taken both an interception and fumble recovery back for touchdowns and Huddleston snatched the ball away from Lexington Catholic senior wide receiver Tommy Knopp and took it back 52 yards for the touchdown.
That defense will be charged with containing a CovCath offense that averages 221 yards per game rushing and just more than 231 passing. The Colonel offensive line led by senior center Carter Black, senior Grant Hemmer and junior Lucas Jones has opened up plenty of holes for junior running back Casey McGinness.
McGinness has started at least a couple times in his four years in high school. McGinness has rushed for 1,140 yards on 114 attempts and 17 touchdowns for an average of exactly 10 per carry. McGinness also has 15 catches for 221 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior tight end/defensive lineman Michael Mayer, a 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound Notre Dame commit, has been brutal on both sides of the ball. He has a team-high 24 catches for 425 yards and six touchdowns. Defensively, Mayer has a team-high 45 tackles including eight for a loss, two fumble recoveries, an interception return 76 yards for a touchdown at Chatard and one quarterback sack.
When he's had to throw the ball, sophomore quarterback Caleb Jacob has delivered. Jacob has completed 87-of-127 passes for 1,603 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
"Just like any game, but especially in this game when you have two good teams going against each other, they're going to have big plays. We're going to have big plays and you have to stay even the best that you can," Weinrich said. "For a game like this, you have find a way to get some unconventional scores, some unconventional turnovers in situations that are not script. There are going to be plays that you don't draw up so you hope that your guys are prepared and they have enough experience. They're flying around and trusting what they're doing so that when those situations present themselves, they're able to take advantage of them."
Another big target offensively has been senior 6-5, 215-pound wide receiver Jack Coldiron. Coldiron has 16 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Zac Coburn has 11 catches for 155 yards and one touchdown.
The Highlands offense put together a solid half against Dixie Heights after not finishing several drives in the first half that could have helped put that game away sooner. Behind an offensive line led by seniors Will Salmon, Trent Johnson and juniors Max Dierig, Brock Huber and Dylan Turner, Highlands is averaging 177 passing and just more than 137 rushing the ball.
"We just have to do what we do," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We have to do what we've been doing offensively all year and keep getting better at the little things that we do. We don't have to completely reconstruct an offense or change anything. We just have to make sure we execute what our offense is designed to be."
Senior Cooper Schwalbach continues to lead Highlands with 589 yards rushing on 105 carries and seven touchdowns for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. Schwalbach also has 11 catches for 113 yards. Sophomore Joe Buten has 37 carries for 264 yards and five touchdowns for an average of just more than seven per carry.
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But teams have had problems running against the Colonels all season. CovCath's 3-4 defense is allowing an astounding average of just 43 yards per game in that department. The Colonels have six sacks and 37 tackles for a loss.
"The stats don'e lie so we'll go with what they have done all year," Deaton said. "They've got some really good football players on defense. (Mayer) has the height, weight and he's a good football player so he has the whole package."
That has forced teams to go to the air. The Colonels have allowed an average of 170 yards passing per game. Senior Jackson Blank leads the Colonels with two interceptions.
"These are young kids still learning this game," Eviston said. "It's a bunch of teen-agers playing against a bunch of teen-agers. It comes down to a lot of discipline and understanding what you're doing and being in the right place. That's what we try to teach them. We can do some of the big things right. But if we're not doing the little things right, eventually something's going to crumble. We have to take care of our house. We have to take care of what we do. If we do that, then things work itself out. Our defensive staff is doing a great job with them. We're going to have to do that this Friday."
Highlands is passing for an average of 177 per game. Senior quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 92-of-166 passes for 1,174 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
When given the opportunity, senior wide receivers Nate Roberts, Austin King and junior Hunter Ahlfeld have made big plays, especially in one-on-one situations. Roberts has 24 catches for 411 yards and six touchdowns and King has 23 for 195 yards and two touchdowns with Ahlfeld catching 19 passes for 328 yards and four scores.
"Stretching the field certainly helps us. We have complete confidence in the running backs, receivers and O-line, essentially all aspects of the line," King said. "I'd say we're coming on at the right time. Helping out the quarterback in Grady is vital, especially when he does so much for us. We're confident. We've been repping the routes this week. We're prepared for any sort of scramble drill so I would say we're definitely ready."
A big part of the game could be who keeps calm when things don't go their way. Sisson pointed out Highlands has had some personal foul penalties this year.
"It's on us seniors to make sure everyone is emotionally in check," Sisson said. "We've been in similar games like this. It's good to play with emotion, with a chip on your shoulder. We just can't let it go too far. If we can play with that passion without doing the stupid things like the extra pushing and stuff, we'll be fine."
A district championship and avoiding a potential match-up with the District 6 winner that will have a first-round bye in the second week of the playoffs is also on the line. Highlands won its other district game, 49-6 over Dixie Heights a week ago putting the Bluebirds in solid position to play host to a first-round playoff game.
The next Highlands win in the series would be the 50th all-time against the Colonels. The Bluebirds lead the series, 49-19.