|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Nate Roberts (80) takes the ball from quarterback Grady Cramer (18) on an end-around play. Roberts had six catches for 142 yards and six touchdowns.|
But it did not come as easily as the final score may have indicated in a 42-7 victory for the host Highlands Bluebirds (7-2 overall). The Greenwood Gators (2-7) from Class 5A's District 2 in Bowling Green had nothing to lose on their approximate 3.5-hour journey to Fort Thomas and made Highlands earn everything on the cold and sometimes rainy evening at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
This marks the first time Highlands has won seven games in a season since 2015. The Bluebirds finished 6-6 last year and 3-8 in 2016 after going 8-6 in 2015 before losing in the Class 5A state semifinals.
Both teams ran 51 plays. Highlands put up 392 yards for an average of just under eight yards per play compared to 161 for Greenwood for an average of just more than three per play.
The Bluebirds mostly did it through the air where teams have had a lot of success lately against the Gators with 280 yards. Highlands senior quarterback Grady Cramer completed 17-of-21 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns once again distributing the ball well.
"In every single game, there's things you have to fix and get better at," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I was pretty happy with our quick screen game, which is something we wanted to be able to do (Friday). We just have to be able to make sure that we do every single thing right because as we get closer to the playoffs, we have to."
Senior Nate Roberts led the way with six catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Adam Weyer and senior Nate Roberts followed with three catches each for 29 and 23 yards. Junior Hunter Ahlfeld added two catches for 32 yards.
"The hustle and the guys blocking really helped open things for (the quick screens)," said Ryan Garvey, Highlands junior wide receiver. "The more practice them, the more confident we get. Practice makes perfect, but you just have to work hard and it'll get there."
Like many opposing defenses, Greenwood focused on stopping the Highlands running game and recovered one fumble in the process. Senior Cooper Schwalbach had six carries for 62 yards. But he still found the end zone twice. In the 47-35 win at Greenwood last year, Schwalbach torched the Gator defense for 181 yards on 24 carries and five touchdowns averaging about 7.5 yards per carry.
Greenwood struggled against the run early in the season. Defending Class 4A state champion Franklin-Simpson ran for 455 yards in a 50-7 win at Greenwood on Sept. 7 and Grayson County rushed for 332 yards against the Gators last week. But Class 5A's second-ranked South Warren in the latest Associated Press poll and third-ranked Bowling Green threw for 370 and 311 yards respectively in wins over Greenwood in recent weeks.
The Highlands 3-5 defense once again put together another nice game. Greenwood lined up sophomore quarterback John Morrison in the shotgun, but operated with Wing-T principles. The Gators had some success running junior Reed Slone outside. Slone scored Greenwood's lone touchdown on a 52-yard run in the third quarter to make the final score. Slone also led Greenwood with three catches for 25 yards.
"We didn't do anything different. We just had to play faster and trust the alignment," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "You try to replicate something like that in practice. We got caught looking in the backfield for half a second (on Greenwood's first drive). That was enough for them to get that edge. Once we settled and just focused on our stuff, then I felt we played well the rest of the game."
Morrison led all rushers with seven carries for 97 yards averaging just under 14 yards per carry. But Highlands blew up the sweeps a number of times. Highlands junior defensive lineman Zach Lewin had three tackles for a loss. Junior linebacker Alex Starkey had a quarterback sack. Senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson also had a tackle for a loss with senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn and junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach combining on another.
"We definitely got better as the game went along," said Conner Zell, Highlands junior defensive lineman. "Everyone knows that you just have to trust what you're doing and trust what the coaches tell you to do. (You use) your hands, fill in your gap and make sure big plays don't happen."
Morrison completed just 6-of-16 passes for 40 yards. Greenwood converted on its lone fourth-down attempt but none of the six third-down tries. On the other side, Highlands converted 3-of-12 on third down and not on its fourth-down attempt.
"It's crucial to get stops on third and fourth downs to get the ball back for our offense," said Bryson Cody, Highlands sophomore defensive back. "You catch or bat the ball down so the receiver doesn't get the ball for a touchdown or first down."
Highlands also recorded another defensive touchdown late in the first half. Junior defensive back Jacob Brass intercepted Morrison and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to put the Bluebirds up 21-0. He had great blocking in front of him from teammates.
"Defensively, we need to be patient and not give up the big play," Weinrich said. "We did a good job of that. They got a couple plays, got a couple first downs. But we never wavered. We kept doing what we were doing and put ourselves in position to make a play like Brass' interception. We preach it all the time and our guys did a really good job of turning from defense to offense immediately and getting legal blocks. That's key when you get an interception like that."
Special teams also had a nice game. Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston returned the second half kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown to put the Bluebirds up 28-0 and senior kicker Nick Bowman made all six extra-point attempts. Bowman also recovered his own kickoff. Bowman booted a low line drive that hit hard off a Greenwood player and back into the backfield where he jumped on it.
Highlands scored on its second possession of the first quarter. Highlands drove the field and capped it off when Cramer found Roberts running to the left side for the score to put the Bluebirds up 7-0 after the first quarter.
The Bluebirds took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Ahlfeld set up Highlands 1st-and-Goal from the Greenwood 3. Cooper Schwalbach finished the drive going right for the score.
Following Huddleston's kickoff return for a touchdown, Cramer found Roberts for a 66-yard touchdown pass. Later in the quarter, Cooper Schwalbach broke free for a 13-yard touchdown run.
The reserves played a good part of the fourth quarter. Junior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth led Highlands down the field on the last possession. But the Bluebirds could not find the end zone.
"I think (varsity experience) helps a lot because it's going to help me get used to the atmosphere," said Seth Mullikin, Highlands sophomore offensive lineman. "I'm just hoping I get better from it. I try every day to get my chance. I think the support is a big part of our success this year. We all come together as one family and one team."
Highlands concludes the season on Friday against Boone County (2-7). Game time is 7 p.m.