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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Highlands takes on Conner in crucial district opener

Highlands senior Bryson Cody runs downfield trying to make a play against Boyle County.
(Img: Ed Harber)

By G. Michael Graham

Down 25 in the second quarter in the 46-7 loss to Boyle County on Friday, Highlands Bluebirds junior lineman Ivan Roller reminded his teammates they've been looking forward to this time in their lives for a long time.

Highlands scored its lone touchdown of the game shortly after that. The Bluebirds hope to see more plays like that leading to more positive things starting Saturday in the first Class 5A, District 5 game in Hebron against the Conner Cougars at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on Star Channel 64 as the Saturday High School Rivals game.

"Everyone is trying to put that loss behind us, move on to the next week and try to improve," Roller said. "We need to get better in every aspect and just start putting more effort into everything we do. It's about giving everything we can until the whistle blows."

Highlands enters the game at 1-2 losing both home games this season and Conner is 2-0. But the combined record of those three opponents are 6-3 while the records of Conner's first two opponents are 2-4. The Bluebirds lost to Simon Kenton (2-1) and Boyle County (3-0).

The Bluebirds are hoping for redemption after losing twice to the Cougars last year. Conner beat Highlands, 20-17 on a late touchdown during the regular season in Fort Thomas. The Cougars then carried that confidence into the first round of the postseason at home and picked apart the Bluebirds in a 38-28 victory in Hebron. Conner finished 8-4 last year losing 38-8 to eventual state champion Covington Catholic.

Highlands started the abnormal season as a result of Coronavirus 2019 with limited practices and no scrimmages against other teams. The Bluebirds had limited varsity experience back from last year's 6-5 squad.

This team has seen a lot more sophomores receive substantial playing time than usual, especially at the skill positions. But Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said the coaching staff has seen a lot of positive things throughout the weeks.

"We've had to grow up real fast whether you're a senior, junior or sophomore," Weinrich said. "You can go out and perfect everything you want in practice. You have to learn to carry that over to Friday Night when they turn the lights on. We've had several weeks now where we feel like we're doing things pretty much perfect during the week. We're finding out Friday night is a little bit different because the other team is trying to make you not be able to execute. We have to be able to overcome that. Everyone has to be a veteran this week." 

Weinrich relays the plays in offensively and linebackers coach Nick Behymer calls in the plays defensively. But Weinrich said it is a collaborative effort with the coaches in calling the plays.

Opponents have outscored Highlands, 87-44 on the season. The 3-5 Highlands defense made some plays against Boyle County. But the offense could not sustain drives in the defeat.

Teams have put up 505 yards rushing and 484 passing against the Bluebirds for averages of around 168 and 161 per game. The Bluebirds have rushed for 589 and passed for 204 out of the Spread offense for averages of around 196 and 68.

Highlands rode the read-option to the 23-14 victory at Ryle led by sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon. But Boyle County contained it forcing the Bluebirds into 3rd-and-long passing situations.

Noon leads Highlands with 335 yards rushing on 58 carries and three touchdowns for an average of just under six per carry. Noon has also completed 15-of-30 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay leads the Bluebirds with six catches for 58 yards.

Weinrich admitted teams will try to take away the read-option until the Bluebirds develop more consistency in the passing game. He pointed out that Noon completed 8-of-16 passes against Boyle County. Of the eight incompletions, only one missed the target. But it only came a foot in front of the receiver. The receivers initially made the catches. But the ball came out when the receivers fell to the ground for incompletions.

"We're working on timing a lot. We're working on drilling the outside shoulder," said Clayton Lloyd, Highlands junior wide receiver. "The receivers just need to work on planting their feet and getting the defensive to bail leaving him open."

The Bluebirds will be playing on grass at Conner compared to the turf at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. Lloyd said he likes playing on grass better because he can dig in and make his cuts quicker and a lot easier. He added that a lot of his teammates that played in the Campbell County Red Devils youth program agree on that.

Noon and other skill position players such as junior running back Griffin Richter and sophomore running back Dawson Hosea have made plays when the offensive line blocks well. The Highlands offensive line double teamed a defensive lineman for Boyle County.

"I think the biggest thing I'm impressed with is how hard they're working and how much they're starting to come together. The whole football thing is becoming a brotherhood," said Wayne Hall, Highlands offensive line coach. "I feel like the offensive line is the tightest, closest-knit group of any position and that's speaking from playing in high school and playing in college. They're starting to trust each other. I think as we play more games and get more experience under our belts, we're going to become a really solid group. For us to be truly successful, we have to be able to control the line of scrimmage and put some points on the board."

The Highlands defense had a lot of success against the Rebels on Friday when they forced the Rebels into 3rd-and-long. They did not have any turnovers in that game. Senior defensive lineman Vance Moore has been consistent up front with three tackles for a loss and a quarterback sack among others.

The Bluebirds have recovered two fumbles and intercepted three passes. Senior defensive back Dominic Robinson has two picks and sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson had a fumble recovery and interception against Ryle. Senior linebacker Mason South has the other fumble recovery.

Conner is again running a Spread offense and 3-4 defense. The Cougars have outscored the two opponents, 69-6 on the season. They've put up 232 yards rushing and 308 passing for averages of 116 and 154 respectively. Opponents have 172 rushing and 155 passing for average of just 86 and just under 78 respectively.

"They have a system in place," Weinrich said. "They do a good job with it. As far as the coaches go, they know what to expect out of each position. They know what to call in certain situations. It's really hard to tell a difference from this year to last year when you watch them on film."

Junior Alex Castrucci has moved in at quarterback with the graduation of Jared Hicks for Conner. Castrucci has completed 17-of-26 passes for 308 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Senior running back Colton Roy moved from slot receiver to feature running back this season. He leads the Cougars with 157 yards rushing on 24 carries and four touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards per carry. Roy had seven catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff win against Highlands last year.

Castrucci has completed passes to eight different wide receivers. Junior wide receiver Cody Crawford leads the way there with six catches for 150 yards and a touchdown.

Junior Parker Hitzfield leads Conner with 18 tackles including one for a loss and senior defensive back Dylon Fike has 10. Crawford at linebacker has an interception and the team's lone fumble recovery. Sophomore defensive back Alijah Thompson has two interceptions for the Cougars.

The two meetings last season marked the first times the programs met since 2006. Highlands still leads the all-time series 21-4.

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