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Thursday, November 19, 2020

Highlands Bluebirds Gear up for Class 5A Playoffs

Bluebirds Ready for Second Battle with Cougars
PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands sophomore defensive lineman Atlas Lindeman (34) walks toward the line during the 34-21 win at Campbell County on Nov. 6. Highlands travels to Conner for the first round of the playoffs this Friday.

Even after the loss to Cooper that forced the Highlands Bluebirds football team (4-5 overall) into a three-way tie with the Jaguars (3-5) and Conner Cougars (3-3) for second in Class 5A, District 5, the Ratings Percentage Index consistently showed the Bluebirds back to Hebron for the first round of the playoffs. The final RPI ratings confirmed that when Conner finished with a .49617 rating to .49462 for the Bluebirds and .45936 for the Jaguars.

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The playoffs begin at 7 p.m. Friday. Highlands beat Conner, 36-0 at the same spot Oct. 3. The Bluebirds avenged two losses to the Cougars in 2019 including a 38-28 first-round defeat in the Class 5A playoffs. But Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich quickly agreed that a lot of the things that worked against the Cougars on Oct. 3 may not necessarily work as well in the game Friday.

"That has no bearing on this game," Weinrich said. "Both teams were figuring things out at that point in the season. We had only played three games and they had only played two with no scrimmages."

Highlands comes into the game off a 34-21 win at Campbell County that snapped a three-game losing streak. Conner has lost two in a row including a 34-14 loss at home against Ryle on Nov. 6. Highlands has been outscored 248-192 for an average of just more than 41 to just more than 21 and Conner has been outscored 136-110 for averages of between 22 and 23 to between 18 and 19.

The biggest factor in the RPI rating that led to Conner playing host is the RPI did not heavily factor in out-of-state games even though the Cougars played three fewer games than the Bluebirds. Highlands played the maximum nine-game schedule allowed before the playoffs while Conner scheduled seven. But the Cougars did not travel to George Rogers Clark (3-4) on Oct. 30 because of a rise in Coronavirus 2019 cases, particularly in red zone counties that have an average of 25-plus case on a daily basis per 100,000 people.

The RPI process is better explained here:

Highlands had some players out against Campbell County. That includes senior running back/linebacker Mason South. But South said he'll return for the playoff match-up.

"Obviously, I wish I could have been out there with them," South said. "But I've never had more fun watching a group of guys go out there and just dominate. Having another week off I think is going to be great for us getting guys healed and having another great week of practice. Nothing is guaranteed at this point."

South played a huge role in the win at Conner on Oct. 3. South had five carries for 36 yards and a 37-yard catch. Defensively, South had two tackles with one for a loss and an interception as the Bluebirds recorded four interceptions and recovered a Conner fumble in that victory.

The Highlands Spread Offense has put up 1,458 yards rushing and 912 passing fir average if 162 and 101.3 respectively. South is second on the team with 334 yards rushing on 58 carries and a touchdown for an average of between five and six yards per carry and third with eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.

Sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon continues to lead the Bluebirds in both having completed 62-of-118 passes for seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Noon also had 750 receptions on 152 carries with six touchdowns for an average of nearly five yards per carry.

Highlands junior wide receiver Jake Welch has a team-high 251 yards and two touchdowns on 10 receptions. Sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay has a team-high 14 catches for 142 yards and a touchdown.

Highlands put up a balanced 161 yards rushing and 169 passing in the win over the Cougars on Oct. 3 behind solid protection from the offensive line. Noon rushed for 90 yards and passed for 169.

"We're just going to keep improving on what we're doing," Welch said. "We're really starting to click in the running game and the passing game. It's just going to keep remaining balanced."

Welch said the Cougars played a mixture of zone and press-man defense. He had a 41-yard catch in the win. Senior wide receiver Jason Noe led the Bluebirds in that Oct. 3 game with two catches for 68 yards.

The Highlands 3-5 defense has allowed 1,535 yards rushing and 853 passing in eight games against Kentucky opponents for averages of just under 192 rushing and just under 107 passing. The Bluebirds still struggled to disrupt things in the backfield against Campbell County consistently.

But Highlands did have nine tackles for a loss including four quarterback sacks against Conner. Sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson recovered a Cougar fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in that game. Robinson has two of the three fumble recoveries for the Bluebirds this year.

Highlands junior defensive back Will Hartman leads Highlands with 57 tackles including a sack. Hartman had a 51-yard interception return against Conner on Oct. 3.

The Bluebirds have 11 interceptions this year. Noe has three with senior defensive back Dominic Robinson and Sam Robinson recording two each. Dominic Robinson returned a punt for a touchdown at Conner.

The key for Highlands defensively is to again contain senior running back Colton Roy. Roy has 462 yards rushing on 82 attempts and eight touchdowns for an average of between five and six yards per touch. Highlands held Roy to 16 yards on eight carries for an average of two per carry.

That forced the Cougars to pass more out of the spread offense. Junior quarterback Alex Castrucci has completed 43-of-81 passes for 547 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. Sophomore wide receiver Alijah Thompson leads Conner with 18 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown with junior wide receiver Cody Crawford receiving 12 balls for 212 yards.

"(Castrucci) has more experience. He didn't have any varsity experience entering the season,"
Weinrich said. "We have moved some guys around to some different positions. They have to learn them in a hurry."

Junior Parker Hitzfield leads Conner with 53 tackles on the season. That includes 34 solo and one for a loss. The Cougars have 28 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks on the season. Senior defensive lineman Tyler Back has 23 tackles with nine for a loss and three sacks.

The Cougars have recovered five fumbles and intercepted six on the season. Crawford has a team-high two fumble recoveries and Thompson a team-high four interceptions for 81 yards in returns including a touchdown.

A total of 17 teams have withdrawn from the playoffs because of Coronavirus 2019 or traveling into a red zone. But none are in Class 5A.

Highlands leads the all-time series 22-4. The meetings last year marked the first times the teams played each other since 2006.

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