The Bluebirds had to first beat Madison Southern, 36-7 on Friday in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs at David Cecil Memorial Stadium before traveling to Lawrenceburg to face the undefeated, District 6 champion Anderson County Bearcats (10-0) in the second round. Anderson County received a bye in the first round like South Oldham did last year as a result of a three-team District 5 when the Kentucky High School Athletic Association let Grant County drop out of district play after the 2016 season.
Highlands will play on a grass field for the first time this year when it plays at Anderson County at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Bluebirds played four road games during the regular season at Campbell County, Ryle, Lexington Catholic and Dixie Heights. But they all have turf fields like Cecil Memorial.
The Weather Channel forecast lists rain as a possibility Friday morning. As a result, the game could be played on mud, but nothing like last year when the Bluebirds won on a muddy Boone County field.
Anderson County's Head Coach is Mark Peach. Peach was a senior offensive lineman for the Campbellsville University Tigers when Weinrich was a sophomore. Peach coached at Campbellsville University and Lexington Dunbar before going to Anderson County in the middle of last decade. He guided the Bearcats to a state runner-up finish in 5A in 2011. The two helped the Tigers win a conference championship.
The Highlands 3-5 defense will face an offense with some similarities to what Madison Southern runs. The Bluebirds held the Eagles to 244 yards on 36 carries for an average of just under seven per carry. Anderson County uses the Buck Sweep, some Jet Sweep action and Wing-T principles.
"Ever since we played together in college, you just knew (Peach) was the guy. He was the leader of the offensive line," Weinrich said. "We ran the triple option in college so he has a great background in it. When we put the film in, we saw them running some triple-option principles. They're not an under-center Wishbone triple-option team like Army or Navy. It's a shotgun-option principle offense. They'll have an option off everything. They make you stay very sound with what you're doing."
Anderson County runs the ball nearly four times out of five plays on average. They've rushed for 2,699 yards and passed for 1,057 for averages of just under 270 and 106 yards per game.
"It's very vital to read your keys because if you don't read your keys, then you're not going to get to the ball," said Griffin Welsch, Highlands junior defensive lineman. "It's very vital to stay in the position that the coaches tell you to because if you're not in that position, the ball could possibly go right where you're supposed to be. They do lot of cutbacks. That's usually how they get their big plays."
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Gillis has rushed for 276 yards on 42 carries and three touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards. He's also completed 47-of-76 passes for 968 yards, 15 touchdowns and just one interception. Charles Collins also leads the Bearcats with 15 catches for 381 yards and six touchdowns and senior wide receiver Wesley Ruehrwein is second with 11 catches for 230 yards and four touchdowns.
"We have to figure out how we need to get ourselves better then how to apply that to what they're doing," Weinrich said. "Obviously, we have to spend time worrying about them and having a game plan, but we can't venture too far off from what we do because as soon as you start doing that, you're guys start thinking. We don't want to do that. We want to play fast, especially with what they're doing offensively and defensively - not in terms of pace, but in terms of executing that play at a high speed, the better off we're going to be."
Highlands lost 35-34 at South Oldham on the road in the second round of the playoffs facing a Double Wing triple-option offense. But the Bluebirds are way better defensively this year having allowed just 1,223 yards rushing and 1,032 passing for averages of just more than 111 rushing and just under 94 passing per game.
Highlands has consistently made plays all season defensively. In the last two weeks, they've set the offense up with short field position. Senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn has three interceptions, three defensive sacks and a fumble recovery. Hagedorn has both a fumble and interception return for a touchdown.
Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston has returned a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown in addition to three kickoffs and one punt for a touchdown to go with two sacks. Senior defensive back Casey Greene and junior defensive back Jacob Brass also have three interceptions and senior linebacker Alex Starkey has two fumble recoveries and three sacks. Senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson, junior defensive lineman Conner Zell and junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach also have two sacks this year.
The Highlands Spread offense displayed balance against Madison Southern and did not turn the ball over. The Bluebirds gained 377 yards on 58 plays for an average of 6.5 per play. Highlands has outscored opponents about 33-12. They've rushed for 1,447 yards and passed for 1,749 for averages of about 132 and 159 per game.
"We're doing the same things we did last week that seem to help us quite a bit," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We'll just keep doing those all week. If we can keep doing that, then we'll reduce the number of turnovers."
Highlands senior running back Cooper Schwalbach continues to be the top priority for opposing defenses. He's rushed for 722 yards on 133 carries and nine touchdowns for an average of 5.5 per carry. But sophomore Joe Buten has rushed for 445 yards on 59 carries and eight scores for an average of 7.5 per carry. Cooper Schwalbach also has 15 catches for 117 yards.
"I just rely on the O-line and I know that we have a good other running back in Joe Buten," Schwalbach said. "It's about being patient and seeing the hole. They set up a lot of other different things. We have a bunch of different passing routes we can do out of fake handoffs. It's very important to not get frustrated and stay positive."
Highlands senior quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 135-of-235 passes for 1,645 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Senior wide receivers Nate Roberts and Austin King lead Highlands with 34 catches each. Roberts has 586 yards eight touchdowns with King going for 270 yards and two touchdowns.
But junior wide receiver Hunter Ahlfeld has also had big moments this year. Ahlfeld has 23 catches for 394 yards and five touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Adam Weyer has 11 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown with junior wide receiver Ethan Houze hauling in 10 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
Anderson County runs a 3-4 defense. Teams have rushed for 1,201 yards and passed for 1,199 for a combined average of 226 yards per game. Senior linebacker Colton Cornish leads the Bearcats with 77 tackles and three sacks. Ruehrwein leads Anderson County with four interceptions.
"They're pretty athletic, but what is more impressive to me is how fast they play to the ball," Deaton said. "They get there as fast as they possibly can and really rally well."
Highlands could benefit from depth and strength of schedule in this game. The Bluebirds dress 80 sophomores through seniors with hardly any player going both directions. On the other side, the Bearcats list 47 players with a number going both directions. The combined record of the Highlands opponents is 54-56 with five advancing to the second round of the playoffs compared to 46-62 with three moving on to the next round for Anderson County.
Highlands has won both meetings in school history against the Bearcats. The teams last met in the opening round of the playoffs in 2002 with Highlands winning 56-0. Highlands also beat Anderson County, 68-14 to open the playoffs in 1999.