But the fifth-ranked Highlands Bluebirds football team (6-2 overall) is focusing on the usual tasks of daily improvement leading up to the next game Friday against a team that has never been to Fort Thomas before in the 2-6 Greenwood Gators. Greenwood, located just east of Exit 22 on Interstate 65 in Bowling Green, will make the nearly 3.5-hour return trip for a 7:30 p.m. game Eastern Standard Time. It also happens to be the annual Homecoming game for the Bluebirds.
"We had to get over it Friday Night," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We didn't have time. We have to get ready for another game. We're getting to that point in the season, which is what you work for all year. That's the playoffs. We're done with district. We are where we are and that's it. Every week, but even more now than ever, these couple weeks are about us. We've done what we need to do to get where we are now. We had to take some inventory of ourselves, see where we are and what we need to work on to get better at. That will continue until we're done playing."
Highlands ventured south last year and knocked off the Gators, 47-35 on a cold evening. The series came about after both teams found themselves needing a game in early 2017. In the case of the Bluebirds in District 5 in addition to CovCath and Dixie Heights, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association let Grant County drop out of district play for this year and last year. The series made for six home games for the Bluebirds this season after just four last year.
Greenwood is in Class 5A, District 2 with second-ranked South Warren (8-0) and third-ranked Bowling Green (7-1). The Gators have been outscored, 276-128 on the year for an average of about 35-16. On the other side, Highlands has outscored the opposition, 262-108 for averages of about 33-14. The Gators have allowed 35 or more points in five of their losses this year. They enter the game on a three-game losing streak following a 35-14 loss at Grayson County to finish 0-3 in district action Friday.
The Bluebirds beat Greenwood last year despite yielding 301 yards on 22 carries and four touchdowns to record-setting Gator quarterback Jackson Adams. Adams finished with 5,405 yards on 649 carries and 74 touchdowns as a four-year starter. But Highlands took advantage of three fumble recoveries and a balanced offensive attack to pull away in the second half.
The Gators finished 4-8 last year losing 42-21 at Bowling Green in the second round of the playoffs. Highlands finished 6-6 last year also losing in the second round of the playoffs, 35-34 at South Oldham.
Not only did Adams graduate, but the Gators endured a change at head coach. After Chris Seabolt stepped down last year, Greenwood promoted Defensive Coordinator William Howard to that spot.
The Gators run either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. They've had their struggles against both this year allowing 1,735 yards rushing and 1,270 passing for averages of just under 217 rushing and 159 passing this year. Grayson County rushed for 332 yards against Greenwood last week after Bowling Green and South Warren destroyed the Gators through the air throwing for 311 and 370 yards respectively. Defending Class 4A state champion Franklin-Simpson ran for 455 yards in a 50-7 win at Greenwood on Sept. 7.
Senior linebacker Alex Rhodes leads Greenwood with 38 tackles including one for a loss and has Greenwood's lone fumble recovery. Sophomore defensive back Samuel McNabb has two interceptions.
This could lead to a big day for the Bluebirds out of their spread offense either way. Highlands averages just more than 143 yards rushing and just under 168 yards per game passing.
Highlands senior running back Cooper Schwalbach continues to lead the Bluebirds with 625 yards rushing on 119 carries and seven touchdowns for an average of more than five per carry. He rushed for 181 yards on 24 carries and five touchdowns in the win at Greenwood last year averaging about 7.5 yards per carry. Schwalbach also has 13 catches for 105 yards.
But sophomore Joe Buten took some heat off Schwalbach rushing for 134 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown against Covington Catholic. Buten has 398 yards rushing on 54 carries and six touchdowns for an average of about 7.4 per carry.
"Like every week, they're pretty hungry," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "They've been working pretty hard. (Tuesday) was good day of practice, so was (Monday) for us. We're getting a chance to reflect and see what things we need to get a little better at and what things we're already good at and focus on those as much as we can."
Highlands quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 106-of-195 passes for 1,288 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Ten different Bluebirds have receptions. Senior Nate Roberts has 28 catches for 444 yards and six touchdowns.
Senior Austin King and junior Hunter Ahlfeld have also had big games this year. King has 26 catches for 215 yards and two scores and Ahlfeld has 21 catches for 362 yards and five touchdowns.
"(Taking chances) is something we actually talked about (Monday) with a couple of our guys," Deaton said. "Don't hold back. Just let go. Cut loose and good things will happen."
Ahlfeld among others are trying to grow from mistakes in the CovCath loss. Ahfeld had a dropped pass that could have gone for a touchdown late in the loss against the Colonels. Ahlfeld said the dreary weather played a factor in that.
"I think it is actually somewhat good for us that we lost last week because that gives us more fuel to beat them in the playoffs (should another meeting occur)," Ahlfeld said. "Grady and I always get those passes down. That's our biggest thing. We get two or three of those every practice."
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Highlands has seen all 11 players on the field make plays defensively. Junior defensive lineman Conner Zell and junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach have two fumble recoveries each to lead the Bluebirds and junior defensive back Jacob Brass has two interceptions.
Four players have two sacks each. They are senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson, junior defensive lineman Zach Lewin, senior linebacker Alex Starkey and junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston. Huddleston took a fumble recovery back 52 yards for a touchdown against Lexington Catholic and has two kickoff returns for a touchdown.
Greenwood runs a hybrid Wing-T offense that has averaged just more than 102 yards rushing and 71 passing this year. Senior Javier Boyd leads the Gators in rushing with 249 yards on 39 attempts for an average of just more than six per carry and junior Reed Slone has 248 yards rushing on 20 carries and two touchdowns for an average of 12.4 per touch.
"We have to fix the little mistakes, add them into our game and we just have to click," Lewin said. "We have to click in order to beat the teams in front of us. We're just supposed to get in our gaps, stay at the heels and don't too far up-field because we don't want them to get past us."
Sophomore quarterback John Morrison has completed 44-of-94 passes for 568 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions. Slone leads the Gators with 17 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns.
"There is some misdirection," Weinrich said. "They try to out-flank you. That's why I say hybrid Wing-T because it has a lot of principles of the Wing-T offense. There is a lot of trap blocking and a lot of play-action passes off their running schemes."
Highlands is 6-1 all-time against teams located in Warren County. The Bluebirds are 3-1 against the Bowling Green Purples including a 28-7 win over the Purples in the 2007 Class 5A state championship game. Highlands beat Warren Central to conclude the regular season in 2013 and 2014. The Bluebirds have never played South Warren or Warren East.