The Highlands offense did produce more than in recent games. But Conner senior quarterback Jared Hicks and company made enough clutch plays to lead the Cougars past the Bluebirds, 38-28 in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs on Friday in Hebron. This marks the second first-round exit for the Bluebirds in four seasons.
Hicks completed 22-of-31 passes for 232 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Senior Justin Daniels had 10 catches for 114 yards to lead the Cougars and junior Colton Roy hauled in seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
Conner put up 364 yards of offense on 78 plays for between four and five yards per play. The Cougars also converted on 10-of-16 on third down for 63 percent and converted two fourth-down tries.
"(Conner) did exactly what we thought," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They played well. We had our chances. In games like this, you have to make plays. It's real simple. They made more plays than we did. We kept grinding and kept giving ourselves a chance to win. You have to be real proud being with them on the sideline with how they responded time after time. It was just one of those nights."
With the success in the passing game, that opened things up more for the Conner option game. Senior Douglas Abdon had 93 yards rushing on 23 carries and a touchdown for an average of just more than four yards per carry.
Highlands had 258 yards of total offense on 54 plays also for an average of between four and five yards per play. The Bluebirds converted 3-of-8 third downs for 38 percent and did not convert on the one fourth-down try.
"They showed up with a lot of confidence, but we stalled out at one point in the first half and were forced into a field-goal attempt," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We shot ourselves in the foot there. We had a critical three-and-out in the second half. Those two drives kept us from putting ourselves in a position to win. I thought we played well for the most part. I'm so proud of our seniors."
Highlands senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth completed 16-of-28 passes for 169 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Highlands senior Brycen Huddleston lead the Bluebirds with seven catches for 76 yards and senior wide receiver Hunter Ahlfeld had five receptions for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Huddleston also led Highlands defensively with eight tackles including two for a loss. Senior defensive back Jacob Brass also had eight tackles and an interception. Senior defensive lineman Zach Lewin had a sack for the Bluebirds.
Hollingsworth did record a 42-yard run and senior Sawyer Depp had a 13-yard scamper. But the Bluebirds put up just 89 yards rushing with no one going for more than 36 yards.
Brass recorded his interception on the first Conner possession and returned the ball to the Highlands 20. But the Bluebirds had to settle for a field goal that missed wide right from 25 yards.
Conner junior Nicholas Keller hit a 31-yards field goal before Highlands took its lone lead with 7:29 left in the second quarter. Depp ran around the left side for a 6-yard touchdown.
After a recovering a Highlands fumble at the Bluebird 34, junior Izac Costa hauled in a four-yard touchdown pass from Hicks, but the Cougars missed the point-after touchdown. But Highlands responded when Hollingsworth hit Ahlfeld for a 24-yard touchdown with 24 seconds left in the half. Conner led 16-14 at halftime.
The Cougars scored on their first possession of the third quarter. Roy hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass from Hicks with 9:25 left in the quarter.
The quarterbacks then exchanged touchdowns. Hollingsworth scored from a yard out and Hicks had a 10-yard touchdown score with 1:14 left in the quarter. Conner led 30-21 after three quarters.
"It's playoff football and the field is just a little bit off so we couldn't get that push we're used to getting," Weinrich said. "We couldn't get the field position. That was really, really hurting us."
The Bluebirds cut the margin to 30-28 with 8:58 left in the game. Hollingsworth hit senior wide receiver Ethan Houze in the corner of the right end zone for the score.
But the Cougars put another drive together to make the final score. Abdon scored from three yards out with 4:33 left in the game.
Highlands graduates 31 seniors from this team. They are Huddleston, Houze, Brass, Ahlfeld, Hollingsworth, Lewin, Depp, kicker Nick Fischer, defensive lineman Brennan White, Sylvan Frazier, Griffin Welsch, Conner Zell, Tyler Phillipps, wide receivers Jack Delagrange, Connor Noon, Adam Weyer, Ryan Garvey, Joey Deschler, linebackers Brennan Haigis, Mason Schwalbach, Nelson Bibb, Wes Bowling, defensive backs Max Guetle, Noah LaMothe, John Kohler, running back Tyler Brune, offensive linemen Brock Huber, Max Dierig, Jackson Curry, Jackson Bibb and Dylan Turner.
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