|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands sophomore quarterback Joe Buten goes in for a three-yard touchdown in the first quarter against Madison Southern. Highlands won 36-7.|
But the Highlands Bluebirds football team (9-2 overall) still had to deal with Madison Southern quarterback junior Tobias Storm in the first round of the playoffs at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. Storm broke free a couple times on quarterback keepers on read plays out of the shotgun. But the Bluebirds held on fourth down a couple times in the end zone, built a nice lead and cruised to a 36-7 win to open the Class 5A playoffs over the Eagles (2-9).
"That quarterback is a really good athlete," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We saw him on film. We knew that's the guy we had to stop. We did a good job for the most part. But stopping them down near the goal line changed the momentum of the game that could have put them in position. They're an onside kick team. If you keep them out of the end zone, that's fewer times they're going to kick off."
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Highlands, the second seed out of District 5, moves on to the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season. The Bluebirds take on the District 6 champion Anderson County Bearcats (10-0) in Lawrenceburg on Friday. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Anderson County received a first-round bye stemming from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association allowing Grant County to drop out of District 5 play before last season. That left District 5 with three teams.
Madison Southern goes home early after winning three straight district championships. The Eagles finished 11-4 last year losing to undefeated Covington Catholic in the state championship.
Storm finished with 86 yards rushing on 17 carries and a touchdown for an average of just more than five yards per carry. The Eagles rushed for 244 yards on 36 carries for an average of just under seven per carry. Senior running back Alex Knuckles led Madison Southern with 105 yards on seven carries including a 63-yard run in the fourth quarter for an average of 15 yards per touch.
But the Eagles lost two fumbles and the Highlands 3-5 defense held on third and fourth down consistently. Madison Southern did not convert on any of its four fourth-down tries and 3-of-9 on third down for 33 percent. Senior linebacker Alex Starkey and senior defensive back Casey Greene had fumble recoveries for the Bluebirds.
Madison Southern changed things up in the backfield on one series. Storm played running back and freshman Walt Smith came in at quarterback.
"That's huge. Anytime you take the ball away from them, you're stealing a possession," Weinrich said. "You put the offense in good position. It gives confidence to your defense and makes their offense a little bit skittish."
Madison Southern passed for just nine yards. The Eagles gained a total of 253 yards on 48 plays for an average of about 5.3 per play.
On the other side, Highlands displayed a balanced attack out of the spread offense. The Bluebirds gained 377 yards on 58 plays for an average of 6.5 yards per play. They passed for 193 and rushed for 184 converting on 8-of-12 on third down for 67 percent and 2-of-3 on fourth down for 67 percent.
"We were more efficient this week than last week," Deaton said. "That was the goal. When we don't (turn the ball over), really good things happen offensively for us."
Highlands quarterback Grady Cramer completed 14-of-20 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. The three leading receivers led the way. Senior Austin King had six catches for 56 yards and Nate Roberts had three catches for 85 yards and a touchdown with junior Hunter Ahlfeld catching three passes for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Junior Ethan Houze had a 35-yard touchdown reception with 2:35 left in the first half and sophomore Joe Buten had the two-point conversion run to give the Bluebirds a 36-0 and a running clock. Highlands hit the running clock on an opponent for the third straight week and fifth time this season.
"Everyone can get involved," said Sam Vinson, Highlands sophomore wide receiver. "We have a lot of play makers. So when they get the ball, they just try to run downfield and get as many yards as they can. Coach (Deaton) has always said it's a game of inches so the more yards you can get, the better it can be."
That let the reserves play in the second half (see sidebar in sports). Junior Tyler Brune led the Bluebirds with 69 yards rushing on 10 carries and senior Cooper Schwalbach had 64 on 12 carries and a touchdown. Junior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth added 42 yards rushing on four carries averaging just more than 10 per carry.
"Last week and this week in the games that we've played, getting those guys in games on a Friday Night is a really big help," Deaton said. "We've got a lot of guys that know what they're doing. When they get in the game, they take advantage of it and they execute."
Highlands senior wide receiver Carter Crawford earned a tough first down in the fourth quarter serving as an example for his teammates. He could have gone down on his lone catch. But he stayed in-bounds and gained 10 yards on the play.
Highlands scored quickly after a snap over the punter's head gave the Bluebirds the ball at the Madison Southern 7. Buten scored from three yards out and senior kicker Nick Bowman made his first of four extra point attempts.
Schwalbach scored his lone touchdown just two seconds into the second quarter going over left tackle for a two-yard score. Following a Starkey fumble recovery, Cramer hit Ahlfeld in the left flat for a 3-yard touchdown to put the Bluebirds up 21-0 with 10:51 left in the second quarter.
After a fourth down stop in the red zone, Highlands drove down the field and scored again. Cramer hit Nate Roberts on the right side for a 17-yard touchdown with 4:30 left in the half. Roberts had a 65-yard reception to set up the touchdown.
Madison Southern avoided the shutout in the fourth quarter. Storm scored from 17 yards out to make the final score.
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