It did not disappoint.
While the Bluebirds (6-2 overall, 1-1 district) fell short 21-14 in the Class 5A, District 5 battle, they left with the full confidence they are once again state championship contenders. The Colonels (8-0, 1-0) still own the state's longest winning streak at 23 in a row.
"That was one heck of a game," said Eddie Eviston, CovCath Head Coach. "They came out and did some things offensively. Our defense was kind of bending, but they weren't really breaking all game. Obviously, it came down to a good defensive stand there at the end and kept them from tying the game or going for the win."
Junior defensive lineman Conner Zell recorded the fumble recovery for the Bluebirds. That marked his second one of the year tying junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach for the team-high.
Highlands ran for 299 yards of total offense on 71 plays compared to 256 on 51 plays. But Covington Catholic averaged just more than five yards per play compared to 4.2 for the Bluebirds. The Colonels had one solid drive down the field.
"I'm very proud of the offense," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "Obviously, there was a play here or there that we missed and in a game like this, you can't miss them. But I'm very proud of what we did offensively. We battled through the whole game. I don't know the stats are. Those are all great, but we want to be with more points than them at the end of the game so we will spend every second between now and each game that we play working to get to that."
CovCath came into the game averaging just more than 452 yards per game offensively. The Bluebirds held the Colonels well below their passing average of 231 yards per game to just 45 yards. Sophomore quarterback Caleb Jacob completed 4-of-10 passes for that amount. Junior tight end Michael Mayer had just one catch for 28 yards. Senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson sacked Jacob once.
"The defense played well," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "There are some things we have to clean up obviously. There were a couple times we got lost and a couple times you get lost against a team like that, that's where they got their completion to (Mayer) to put them in position to score that first touchdown. There were a few times we could have gotten off the field sooner. We played fast. We played aggressive. We played confident. A good offense is going to do things. But our guys did a good job responding to the adjustments we were making based on the adjustments they were making. Like I told them after the game, it doesn't matter now. Now we have five weeks to get ready."
"Our defense worked its tails off (Friday)," said Alex Starkey, Highlands senior linebacker. "They struggled getting anything and when they did get touchdowns, they were from the 10 going in. It's a tough loss, but we're going to come back and see them in November."
Highlands rushed for 185 yards against a 3-4 CovCath defense that allowed just 302 yards all season. A reason for that may be the Colonels have jumping out on teams early and forcing opponents to throw the ball.
Like pretty much every opponent this year, the Colonels focused on containing senior running back Cooper Schwalbach. Schwalbach had 36 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown averaging just more than 2.5 yards per carry. His touchdown with 3:11 left in the third quarter made the final score.
But sophomore running back Joe Buten gave the Bluebirds a spark rushing for 134 yards on 17 carries for an average of just under eight per touch. His 40-yard dash late in the first quarter set up Highlands at the CovCath 5. Highlands took its only lead when senior quarterback Grady Cramer hit senior Hunter Ahlfeld for a 2-yard touchdown with 11:57 left in the first half.
Cramer completed 14-of-29 passes for 114 yards one touchdown and two interceptions to six different receivers. The Colonels sacked Cramer twice.
Senior Nate Roberts had four catches for 33 yards and Ahlfeld had two catches for a team-high 34 yards. Senior Austin King had three catches for 20 yards and junior Adam Weyer had two receptions for 24 yards.
Following Ahlfeld's score, CovCath tied the game with 7:41 left in the half. Senior Duncan Summe ran a sweep around the left end for the score. After recovering a Highlands fumble inside the Bluebird 15, McGinness scored from three out with 6:10 left in the game to give the Colonels the lead for good at 14-7. Sophomore Ryan Schneider had the fumble recovery for the Colonels.
"It's one of those things where we've been used to scoring a lot more, but we had to do what we had to do to kind of control this game and come away with a win," Eviston said. "The biggest thing I can take away from this is our kids fought hard for four quarters. That was good to see."
Highlands had a chance to tie the game later in the half. But Summe intercepted the ball at the CovCath 1.
Senior Jack Coldiron had the interception early in the second half that set up the Colonels up at the Highlands 2. McGinness scored his second touchdown from two yards out to give CovCath a 21-7 advantage with 9:04 left in the third quarter.
"There was one where (the ball) just didn't quite get there and it was raining pretty well so I don't know," Deaton said. "(On) another interceptions, we kind of gave up as we were trying to make a play to end the half. We'll look at those and figure out what's going on, but I'm pretty happy with the decisions that were made by (Cramer) and some amazing throw there too. We'll get better at those for sure."
Highlands had a chance to tie the game late in the first half taking over at its own 26 with 4:53 left in the game after stopping McGinness just short of the first down on 4th-and-1. The Bluebirds came inches from tying the game. Ahlfeld got behind the CovCath defense, but the ball went off his hands.
The Bluebirds had a 4th-and-7 from the CovCath 33 with 40 seconds left. But the Colonels stopped Cooper Schwalbach from making the first down and took a knee to end the game.
Both teams made plays on third and fourth down. Highlands converted 6-of-13 for 46 percent on third down and 2-of-4 on fourth down for 50 percent. CovCath converted 3-of-9 third-down opportunities for 33 percent and neither of its two fourth-down tries.
Highlands concludes the regular season with two home games. The Bluebirds play host to the Greenwood Gators (2-6) from Class 5A, District 2 on Friday. Game time is 7:30 p.m.