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Saturday, November 10, 2018

Bluebirds 'Survive and Advance' at Anderson County

Anticipated Highlands, Covington Catholic Rematch Takes Place in Park Hills on Friday

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Highlands senior running back Cooper Schwalbach (5) tries to break a tackle from Anderson County senior defensive back Aaron Chilton (15). Schwalbach rushed for 110 yards on 23 carries to help Highlands to a 14-10 second round playoff win at Anderson County.
PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Several Highlands defenders including junior defensive lineman Conner Zell (59), senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson (45) and junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston (1) pursue Anderson County sophomore quarterback Jagger Gillis (9) on the last defensive play of the game. Sisson ultimately recovered his second fumble of the game on the play.
The determination and maturity of this edition of Highlands Bluebirds football showed up tremendously when needed the most like it has consistently throughout the season.

The Bluebirds (10-2 overall) overcame a number of odds to take down the undefeated Anderson County Bearcats (10-1), 14-10 in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs on Friday. For the first time since 2015, Highlands will play for a region championship and for the first time since 2014, the Bluebirds hit double-digit victories.

"(Anderson County) did a great job of slowing the game down making it a shorter game," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "Their defense played great. Field conditions were hurting both teams so it was hard to get a footing. Points were at a premium."

They can now turn their focus to the anticipated Region 3 championship rematch with the undefeated Covington Catholic Colonels (12-0) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Park Hills. CovCath handled Montgomery County, 43-15 to extend the state's longest current winning streak to 27 in a row. The Colonels won a hard-fought 21-14 win over the Bluebirds in Fort Thomas on Oct. 12 to win their third straight District 5 championship.

Highlands overcame playing on a grass field for the first time this year and a lopsided amount of penalties. The refs called 14 penalties on Highlands for 168 yards compared to just five for 41 on Anderson County.

But thanks to another gem from the 3-5 defense, Highlands left with the victory against the lone Class 5A team to receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The Bluebirds lost 35-34 at South Oldham in the same round of the playoffs in the same situation last year.

Anderson County gained 275 yards of total offense on 61 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per play out of the triple-option shotgun offense. Bearcat sophomore running back Charles Collins and senior running back Brennon Maxberry came into the game leading the Anderson County rushing attack.

Collins rushed for 1,255 yards on 106 carries and 20 touchdowns for an average of just under 12 per carry entering the game and Maxberry rushed for 829 yards on 107 carries and eight touchdowns for an average of just under eight per carry. Collins finished with 199 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown for an average of more than eight per carry and Maxberry finished with 42 yards rushing on 12 carries for an average of 3.5 yards per carry.

"We knew what to expect. They didn't do anything different," Weinrich said. "It was just a matter of getting used to the speed of it. (Collins) is as good of a player as we've played all year as far as a fast running back hitting the edge and running hard. It took us a while to get the feel of it and the guys responded."

As a team, Anderson County finished with 244 yards rushing after averaging nearly 270 yards per game rushing during the regular season. But Highlands recovered six fumbles and held the Bearcats to 5-of-12 on third down for about 42 percent.

Collins, the son of former Highlands assistant John Collins, tried to follow his offensive linemen and bounce off them to the outside for big plays in addition to starting off in the slot then motioning next to sophomore quarterback Jagger Gillis or coming across on jet sweeps. Collins broke free to the outside on the first two Anderson County possessions. Collins found the end zone on a 51-yard touchdown run to the right side with 5:48 left in the first quarter.

On the first drive, Anderson County ran a play out of the Wishbone from the Highlands 9. But apparent confusion on the play led to a fumble and Highlands senior defensive back Addison Reynolds recovered it for his first fumble recovery of the year.

But Highlands contained Collins after that. The Bluebirds forced the Bearcats into third-and-long situations and sacked Gillis twice. Highlands junior defensive lineman Zach Lewin had two tackles for a loss including a sack and senior linebacker Alex Starkey had the other sack.

"We figured out some things they were doing - pulling and trapping," Starkey said. "I think the defense just got better and better throughout the game in getting to the ball. We don't care what the situation is. We just try to go out there and do our jobs ever play. When we do that, fumbles, sacks and things like that happen."

Senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson led Highlands with two fumble recoveries. His first one with 3:14 left in the third quarter went for 47 yards for a touchdown to give the Bluebirds the lead for good. Sisson leads Highlands with four fumble recoveries on the season.

"It was all a blur. I picked it up and I saw my guy (Highlands junior linebacker) Mason Schwalbach leading out there," Sisson said. "I cut back behind him. I saw nothing but green and broke for the end zone. It was amazing. It's such a great feeling to do that with my brothers here."

Junior linebackers Brycen Huddleston, Schwalbach and junior defensive back Jacob Brass had the other three fumble recoveries. Schwalbach has three fumble recoveries this year with Huddleston recording his second and that marked the first one for Brass. Brass also has three interceptions this year.

Highlands has returned three fumbles and two interceptions for touchdowns this year. Huddleston took back a fumble 52 yards at Lexington Catholic and senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn took one back 35 yards against Simon Kenton. Brass and Hagedorn have the two Highlands pick-6's on the year.

Brass' fumble recovery came with less than five minutes left in the game. Anderson County ran the ball about 78 percent of the time entering the game. But Gillis completed one of his four passes near the Highlands 20.

The ball came away from the Bearcat receiver when he tried to make a move. Anderson County fans felt the Bearcat receiver did not have complete control for the catch. But the back judge did not blow the whistle allowing Brass to recover the ball.

"That's what we've preached from day one," Weinrich said. "If you're going to make a mistake, make it fast. When the ball is thrown, turn and run. We do that from day one in January. We live it. We believe it. There have been so many plays this season where another team executes. They block it perfectly and they get a guy popped free. Just like last week, (Madison Southern) had that long run down to the (Highlands) 10-yard line. We had a goal-line stand and got them off the field. (It was the) same thing here. We were hustling. We had three, four guys on the ground and they had one. Definitely hustle plays make a difference."

Highlands drove down the field. But near the Anderson County 20, the Bluebirds lost a fumble with around two minutes left in the game.

The Bearcats drove into Highlands territory again. But on a passing play with 32 seconds left, the Bluebirds put pressure on Gillis and forced a fumble. Sisson recovered it to give the ball back to the Highlands offense, which ran out the clock.

The Highlands offense moved the ball well against Anderson County's defense. They gained 334 yards on 78 plays for about 4.3 yards per play with 179 yards coming on the ground.

But turnovers also hurt the Bluebirds. Collins picked off two Highlands passes and the Bluebirds lost one fumble. They also converted on just 1-of-10 on third down for 10 percent and 2-of-4 on fourth down for 50 percent.

On the game's first possession, Highlands moved the ball aided by a pass interference penalty on Anderson County. With 9:06 left in the first quarter, Highlands junior wide receiver Ethan Houze got behind the Bearcat defensive back and hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Grady Cramer in the right corner to give Highlands a 7-0 advantage after senior Nick Bowman nailed his first of two point-after touchdown tries.

"It gave us a lot of momentum I believe. It just woke (Anderson County) up and let them know that we were here," Houze said. "(My coaches) trusted me and I trusted my coaches. That's what happens. Coach Weinrich made it an emphasis that we have to take (fewer) steps in the mud. Practicing in the mud helped us tremendously. Coming here. it was almost natural to us. It was pretty easy adjusting to it."

Just before halftime, Anderson County took the lead. Senior Wesley Ruehrwein hit a 28-yard field goal to put the Bearcats up 10-7.

Highlands tried attacking the Bearcat defense near the sidelines after seeing teams like Grant County on film have some success with it. Cramer completed 12-of-22 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.

Highlands senior running back Cooper Schwalbach led the way there with four catches for 56 yards in the flats. Senior Austin King hauled in three catches for 34 yards with senior Nate Roberts and Houze going for two each. Roberts had 34 yards receiving and Houze had 32.

"I was really pumped that we found a way to win this game," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "The kids found a way to win this game with a lot of things going on throughout the game. That is a testament to the type of team we have and the kids we have."

The Bluebirds had to resort to the running game after Anderson County took away the deep routes and the Highlands offensive line blocked enough to create creases allowing the Bluebirds to gain 22 first downs compared to 17 for Anderson County. Cooper Schwalbach led the way rushing for 110 yards on 23 carries for an average of about 4.8 per carry and sophomore running back Joe Buten had 64 yards on 10 carries for an average of 6.4 per carry.

"It was just so crucial for us to do our jobs and make sure that we controlled the game and just control ourselves because you really can't worry about anyone else but yourself," said Trent Johnson, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "If you do your job and you trust the guy next to you to do his job, everything will be fine."

Highlands moved to 3-0 all-time against Anderson County. The Bluebirds also beat the Bearcats in the first round of the playoffs in 2002 (56-0) and 1999 (68-14).

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