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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Highlands Looks to Dixie Heights Under Atypical Thursday Nights Lights

Bluebirds Take on Winless Red Colonels in Final Road Game of Season

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior wide receiver Hunter Ahlfeld (14) goes up for a catch in the most recent game against Simon Kenton while Pioneer senior defensive back David LeCount (29) gets in position. Ahlfeld has 13 catches for a team-high 261 yards and three touchdowns this year.
At first glance, it appears this is one of those games the Blue and White should win handily.

The Highlands Bluebirds enter the first of two Class 5A, District 5 games against the Dixie Heights red Colonels with a sparkling 5-1 record and fresh off the bye week, while the red Colonels are winless at 0-7. But similar to what NBA legend Michael Jordan said before the current players were born, teams have to take the court or field and prove themselves each and every time out.

Highlands will try to do that in an unusual Thursday game in Edgewood at 7 p.m. The Bluebirds last played 13 days ago compared to six for the Colonels. The teams agreed to the Thursday game as the result of being off Thursday and Friday for Fall Break.

Dixie Heights has come close to victory in recent weeks despite being outscored, 229-107 overall. Cooper escaped with a 20-16 win on Friday in Edgewood and the Colonels went for two at Boone County and did not complete it losing 28-27. The Colonels also gave 5-1 Conner a tough test in a 21-13 defeat on Sept. 14. Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said turnovers hurt the Colonels against Conner and early against Boone County.

"They're right in every game they've been playing. They've got some good players," Weinrich said. "They've been making some plays. They do some really good things. You have to be prepared for them."

Depth has been an asset to Highlands over the years. The Bluebirds have 80 sophomores through seniors on the roster compared to 50 for Dixie Heights. Therefore, the Colonels have more players going both directions. Highlands wore down Cooper and Lexington Catholic, who both had players going both directions.

"You just have to execute your plays from the beginning to the end," Weinrich said. "That's what it really comes down to. You can't assume you'll wear someone down just because he goes both ways. It really doesn't mean anything. There are advantages to it and disadvantages. All we can control is us."

Dixie Heights is known to run a lot of misdirection plays. But the Colonels have gravitated more toward a spread look this year. They have rushed for 808 yards and passed for 1039 for averages of just more than 115 rushing and 148 passing per game.

Colonel junior quarterback Jeremy Adams has completed 84-of-179 passes for 1,039 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions. Adams leads the Colonels with 389 rushes on 99 carries and five touchdowns for an average of just under four yards per carry.

Three players have 13 or more receptions for Dixie Heights. Senior Channing Williams leads the way with 30 for 369 yards and four touchdowns.

Highlands has played strong defense in its 3-5 set most of the season and hopes to continue that Thursday. The Bluebirds have allowed averages of just under 113 rushing and an even 132 passing.

It starts up front with the defensive lineman putting pressure on opposing skill position players. Senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn has three sacks to go with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Hagedorn has two defensive touchdowns. Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston consistently finishes tackles and has two kickoff returns for a touchdown. Huddleston also has two sacks along with junior defensive lineman Zach Lewin.

Junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach leads Highlands with two fumble recoveries. Senior defensive back Casey Greene also has two interceptions.

"I think you just make the best of every opportunity you have," said Kyle Turner, Highlands senior defensive back. "I think you just push each other and make each other better because iron sharpens iron. I think that's really it."

The Highlands spread offense has not reached the consistency it has seen in the past. But that's the exciting part. The Bluebirds average just more than 151 yards passing and 119 rushing per game.

"It would be a problem if your offense did peek," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "Your offense and your defense should always be getting better. You should continue to climb and never reach that apex because the only way from the apex is back down."

Highlands junior Cooper Schwalbach continues to lead the Bluebirds with 423 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 89 carries for an average of about 4.8 yards per carry. Sophomore Joe Buten has 214 yards rushing on 32 carries and four touchdowns for an average of about 6.7 yards per touch.

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're starting to fly around and trust each other. It's helping us do better on offense," said Carter Crawford, Highlands senior wide receiver. "It's a matter of repetition with routes getting better at them. Everybody starts to believe in each other better and it makes everybody work harder when we have good runs and better catches."

Dixie Heights will counter with a 3-4 defense. Senior CJ Bensman leads the way with 38 tackles and Dixie's lone fumble recovery of the year.

"I think they're good defensively. I think they've played some tough games and they keep playing games to the end," Deaton said. "They're not going to hold anything back so we have to be ready to go against their defense and answer anything that they bring."

Dixie Heights is the most common opponent over the 104-year history of the Highlands program that first played in 1915. This will mark the 75th meeting between the two teams. The Bluebirds are 65-9 all-time against the Colonels.

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