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Thursday, November 1, 2018

PLAYOFFS! Highlands-Madison Southern Preview

Bluebirds, Eagles Meet for First Time Ever

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior wide receiver Ethan Houze looks for room against Boone County on Friday. The Bluebirds face Madison Southern to open the playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
It may be easy to look ahead with this game.

But that is the one thing the Highlands Bluebirds football team is trying hard to avoid this week. At 8-2 in its best regular season since the 2014 Class 4A state championship season, Highlands enters the first round Class 5A state playoff contest against the Madison Southern Eagles (2-8) as huge favorites.

The game takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. Highlands finished second in District 5 and Madison Southern finished third in District 6 after winning it the last three seasons. This marks the first time the Bluebirds and Eagles have met on the gridiron.

"We're ready to go," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We're ready to play tonight. We're ready to play whoever we play. Wherever we have to go, we don't care. But to be honest, what has helped us so much is not even focusing on this game, it's focusing on Highlands. We're not really talking much about the other teams early in the week. We're worried about getting ourselves better and that's really been paying off the last half of the season. We've been hitting the weight room hard. We've been running hard. We've been doing everything we need to do to get ready for this part of the season because everything you do for 11 months comes down to November. It's here."

Jon Clark are a year removed from an impressive 11-4 campaign. The Eagles made their first-ever appearance in the Class 5A state championship game last year losing 49-13 to Covington Catholic at Kroger Field in Lexington. But Clark has seen some positive things despite the record.

Madison Southern and Head Coach

"My favorite part of coaching has always been when you see that "aha" moment in a kid when the light comes on," Clark said. "Sometimes it is on the field and sometimes it is in the off-the-field things. But I have seen a few of those this year and that is always the most enjoyable part for me."

Highlands has a number of players with playoff experience from the last two seasons that saw the Bluebirds go 1-2 in the Class 5A playoffs after going to the state semifinals in 2015, and some that do not. But this team has made numerous strides.

"I think anytime you're playing on a Friday Night, after you get a play or two, you realize it's a football game then you start to hone in and focus on playing a football game," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "The other things like the crowd, band and lights start to fade away and you're just focused on what you're supposed to do. I think that's true with any game whether it's a playoff or not. I think the biggest thing we just remind them is that now any mistakes you make that could potentially cost you the game means you don't get to play anymore. We want to keep playing."

The Highlands 3-5 defense has been solid in all but one game this season. The Bluebirds have outscored opponents, 359-130 on the season for an average of just below 36 to 13 per game. The defense has allowed 1,223 yards rushing and 1,032 passing for averages of just above 122 and 103 per game respectively.

The Bluebirds will take on a Madison Southern team that has been outscored 433-265 on the season for averages of just above 43 points to between 27 and 26 points per game. The Eagles have rushed for 2,107 yards and passed for 817 for averages of just below 211 rushing and 82 passing per game.

Junior quarterback Tobias Storm has 923 yards rushing on 133 attempts and five touchdowns for an average of just under seven per carry and has completed 42-of-94 passes for 735 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Senior running back Alex Knuckles has rushed for 732 yards on 84 carries and 10 touchdowns averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Weinrich said the Eagles run a hybrid Wing-T offense similar to what the Bluebirds saw against Greenwood. It involves motion, shifting, misdirection and two-Tight End sets.

"He's as good of an athlete as we've seen. He is a tremendous play-maker," Weinrich said of Storm. "They have a lot of different ways for him to carry the ball and a lot of it's based on deception so it's not just snapping the ball and him coming down the hill right now. You have to trust what your assignment is and trust the guy next to you because if you do what you think you see, you're going to be wrong and that's when he busts out the big plays."

Madison Southern runs the ball just more than 75 percent of the time. But when the Eagles pass the ball, senior wide receiver Zeke Benton leads the way with 11 catches for 194 yards and three touchdowns and junior wide receiver Clay Tinsley has 10 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown.

"We have always hung out hat on a solid run game here at Southern," Clark said. "It has been up and down this year. The key to having success against Highlands defense is you have to be sound in getting a hot on a hot, and they are extremely quick and aggressive so you have to stay on blocks as well."

But the Bluebirds have made plays all season defensively and could wear down the Eagles, who list a number of guys going both directions. Highlands has 80 sophomores through seniors on their roster while Madison Southern lists 56 players in all four grades.

Highlands has 15 sacks, 14 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries this year. Senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn leads the way with three sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery. He has returned on interception and one fumble for a touchdown.

Senior linebacker Alex Starkey has three sacks and two fumble recoveries. Senior defensive back Casey Greene and junior defensive back Jacob Brass have have three interceptions each. Senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson has two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Junior defensive lineman Conner Zell and junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach have two fumble recoveries each. Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston has two sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery.

Huddleston has also been potent on kickoffs and punts. He has returned three kickoffs for a touchdown and one punt.

The Highlands Spread offense is coming off a solid performance in the 55-14 win over Boone County on Friday. The Bluebirds gained 304 yards on 44 plays for an average of just under seven yards per play. Highlands took advantage of four fumble recoveries scoring touchdowns on 6-of-9 possessions in the game.

"I felt like offensively, we were very efficient," Deaton said. "It was definitely great having such awesome field position as our defense just did a great job getting the ball for us on such a short field."

Highlands has rushed for 1,447 yards and passed for 1,749 for averages of just below 145 and 175 per game. Senior quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 135-of-235 passes for 1,645 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Six different Highlands receivers have 10 or more catches this year. Senior Nate Roberts leads the way with 34 catches for 586 yards and eight touchdowns with senior Austin King hauling in 34 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Hunter Ahlfeld has 23 catches for 394 yards and five touchdowns.

Defenses continue to key on senior running back Cooper Schwalbach. He still has 722 yards rushing on 133 carries for an average of between five and six yards per carry and nine touchdowns. He also has 15 catches for 117 yards. Sophomore Joe Buten has rushed for 445 yards on 59 carries and eight touchdowns averaging 7.5 per touch. The offensive line hopes to open more holes for the running game this week.

"We have to have the mentality that we're better than them and we're just going to come get them every time. You can't get tired," said Will Salmon, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "Footwork is obviously the main key and you can't get scared by their stunts."

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Madison Southern primarily runs a 4-2-5 defense. But the Eagles have allowed 2,634 yards rushing and 1,628 passing this year for averages of just above 263 rushing and just below 163 passing per game. They have allowed 108 points combined in their last two games in losses to Wayne County (68-29) in Berea and Anderson County (40-7) in Lawrenceburg.

This could be the last home game for the 23 Highlands seniors. Highlands is 4-2 at David Cecil Memorial Stadium this year and 4-0 on the road.

"It's crazy to think that it could be my last game here," said Addison Reynolds, Highlands senior defensive back. "But we're all trying to treat it as just another game on the schedule. Just show up and go as hard as we can every play."

Madison Southern will come to David Cecil Memorial Stadium and experience the short sidelines and unique atmosphere. But Clark quickly pointed out the Eagles played in front of a 5A state championship record 10,646 fans last season so those environments are nothing new.

"Highlands offers a great atmosphere for high school football anywhere in the country," Clark said. "I think it is a great opportunity for our kids to play at a place that has such rich tradition, and in front of a school and fans that have such a passionate support for their team."

Highlands has lost in the first round of the playoffs just once since 1991. It came two years ago at Louisville Doss, 52-32 during the forgettable 3-8 campaign. That has been the lone losing season for Highlands since going 4-5-1 in 1955.

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