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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Highlands Seeks Momentum in Postseason Prep

Tradition-Rich Programs Meet for First Time Since 1997

Highlands junior wide receiver Oliver Harris (14) heads upfield in the recent loss against Cooper. (Img: Ed Harber)

By G. Michael Graham

They are two programs that invoke fond memories in their respective states and they meet again Friday in Fort Thomas for the first time since 1997 at 7 p.m.

The visiting Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller Crusaders (2-6) have 36 playoff appearances in school history and nine state championships good for third in Ohio behind just two other programs in Maria Stein Marion Local located in Mercer County in Western Ohio not far from Indiana and Cleveland St. Ignatius, who have 11 each. The host Highlands Bluebirds (3-4) own 23 state championships good for second in Kentucky behind Louisville Trinity's 26.

But both teams have been down by their standards lately. The Crusaders are on their fourth head coach in four years in former Eastern Kentucky University Head Coach Mark Elder.

Highlands had a tug-of-war contest in the field house Monday during practice. The intensity from the contests could be heard from outside. Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich hopes to have practices like that leading up to the game Friday.

"These guys have been resilient all year and that's life," Weinrich said. "You have to figure out a way to bounce back when things don't go perfect. They're never going to be perfect. I think we're seeing that nation-wide right now (during the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic). You have to get through these times and keep figuring out ways to get better than the last time you came out."

The Ohio High School Athletic Association and Kentucky High School Athletic Association took different approaches in handling the football seasons as the result of Coronavirus 2019. Ohio let teams play six games before letting every team enter the playoffs. Teams could still schedule up to four games through Nov. 14 if eliminated from the playoffs or receiving a first-round bye. Kentucky delayed the start of the season to Sept. 11 and the start of the playoffs one week.

Moeller opened this season with a 34-17 win at Columbus (Ohio) Hartley before losing five in a row including all three games against Greater Catholic League rivals Elder, St. Xavier and La Salle. The Crusaders then beat host Hamilton, 43-27 in the first round of the Division I playoffs before losing 45-14 at St. Xavier. Elder said this is the last game of the season for Moeller.

"We have a fantastic group of young men," Elder said. "They've competed throughout the year so I'm proud of the efforts, the resiliency that they've shown. We practiced twice last week and we have the kids going again (Monday) in preparation for the game on Friday."

Elder noted the Crusaders have been more competitive in games this year outside of a few games including a 44-7 loss at Louisville Trinity. Moeller only lost 27-25 against La Salle (6-2), which is still alive in the playoffs and has several players going to NCAA Division I programs.

Highlands still has a lot to play for in terms of playoff seeding after going 2-2 in Class 5A, District 5 action. The Bluebirds could take on Cooper or Conner in the first round of the playoffs or go to Covington Catholic (6-0) on Nov. 13. That will be determined by the three teams' Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and it does include games against out-of-state opponents.

"We're just taking it a day at a time right now," Weinrich said. "We have to worry about us. That has to be the key right now."

This link explains the RPI system. Highlands (.50123 RPI) would travel to Conner (.52135) for the first round of the playoffs and Cooper (.47140) would travel to Covington Catholic (.67263) if the season ended Monday.

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Highlands appeared to be turning a corner in consecutive shutout wins over Conner (36-0) and Boone County (43-0). But following a 42-0 loss at Covington Catholic, the Bluebirds suffered a devastating 48-21 loss to Cooper in Fort Thomas giving up 398 yards rushing.

Teams have outscored the Bluebirds, 177-144 on the season for averages of just more than 25 to between 20 and 21 points per game. Teams have outscored the Crusaders, 232-165 for average of 29 to between 20 and 21.

The Highlands offense finished drives better against Cooper than against CovCath out of the Spread attack. The Bluebirds have rushed for 1,214 yards and passed for 844 for averages of between 173 and 174 rushing and between 120 and 121 passing.

Sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon continues to lead the Bluebirds in both with 636 yards rushing on 120 carries and six touchdowns for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Noon has also completed 55-of-97 passes for 738 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions.

Senior running back Mason South has put up solid numbers rushing the ball and receiving the ball. South is second on the team with 334 yards rushing on 58 carries and a touchdown for an average of just under six yards per carry. South also has seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.

Junior wide receiver Jake Welch and sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay lead the Bluebirds in receptions. Welch has nine catches for 229 yards and a touchdown and Kelsay has 14 for 142 and a touchdown.

"It's about doing everything better mostly just beating your defender off the ball, running more crisp routes, making better cuts and catching the ball," said Chase Hoffman, Highlands senior wide receiver. "It's about repeatedly doing it in practice every day just timing routes perfectly so we can go out Friday and have a big play off one of those passes. If we catch the ball and sprint upfield, it could be a touchdown."

The Bluebirds 3-5 defense has allowed 1,430 yards rushing and 693 passing for averages of just more than 204 rushing and 99 passing. Highlands has had problems penetrating the backfield in the last two games against bigger offensive lines despite stunting on the defensive line a lot.

"I think a lot of it is discipline," said Brenden Nickelman, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "If one person does a little bit less than what he can do, that can ruin the whole thing. (Moeller) is going to be a good opponent. But at the end of the day, Highlands beats Highlands. If we're disciplined, we can take home a victory."

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South leads the Highlands defense at linebacker. He has 34 tackles including seven for a loss. Sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson has eight tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

The Bluebirds have 10 interceptions and three fumble recoveries on the season. Senior defensive back Jason Noe leads Highlands with three interceptions including one against Cooper and senior defensive back Dominic Robinson has two.

"It's just a matter of if we can perform well enough to win the game," Elder said. "I certainly have a lot of respect for their football program, their coaching staff and the players out there. They're all very good."

Moeller runs a Spread offense that has put up 980 yards rushing and 1,556 yards passing for averages of 122.5 rushing and 194.5 passing. Junior quarterback Noah Geselbracht has taken the role in recent weeks and has completed 64-of-103 passes for 879 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. 

Sophomore wide receiver Tennel Bryant leads the Crusaders with 33 catches for 481 yards and three touchdowns. Senior TJ Rotello leads Moeller with 343 yards rushing on 84 carries and six touchdowns for an average of just more than four yards per touch. The Moeller offensive line is led by 6-foot-5-inch senior Landon Fickell, who is the son of University of Cincinnati Head Coach Luke Fickell.

Moeller plays a 4-3 base defense that has allowed 1,399 yards rushing and 1,433 yards passing for averages of just under 175 per game rushing and just more than 179 passing. Senior linebacker Ryan Anderson leads the Crusaders with 65 tackles. Moeller has recovered five fumbles this year and intercepted just one pass. Elder has said the year has been up and down in all facets of the game.

Highlands lost the last meeting, 21-20 against Moeller in 1997. The Bluebirds are 0-3 in program history against the Crusaders. The two teams also met in 1994 losing 54-15 and 1993 falling 44-22.

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