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Friday, November 20, 2020

Highlands Takes Down Conner Again to Start Class 5A Playoffs

Bluebirds Make Halftime Lead Stand

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior running back Griffin Richter made his return to action Friday in the first round of the playoffs against Conner. Highlands won 27-16 to advance to the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.

Note: There will be no video this week.

Coronavirus 2019 may have denied high school football teams across the country full seasons.

But the pandemic did not deny the Highlands Bluebirds (5-5) a playoff win this year. Highlands built a 20-0 halftime lead and made it stand in a 27-16 win over the host Conner Cougars (3-4) to start the Class 5A playoffs Friday.

This marked the first playoff win for the Bluebirds in two seasons. They lost 38-28 at Conner in the same round last year after driving to the Class 5A region championship game in 2018. Highlands shut out Conner, 36-0 on the same field Oct. 3. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association pushed the playoffs back a week as a result of Coronavirus 2019 cases.

"They did a good job last week of staying even keel and just focusing on that day,"
said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "It seemed like it was going to be forever until we got a chance to play. Instead of focusing on that, they focused on the day. We had to alter what we would typically do just to get better for two weeks, then a week and a half, then a week as opposed to a typical Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday type deal. They did a good job of getting themselves ready to play."

The difference came on yards per play. Highlands had 339 yard on 50 plays for an average of between six and seven yards per touch compared to 273 on 60 plays for an average of between four and five yards per touch.

Highlands sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon led the way running for a career-high 191 yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns for an average of between seven and yards per carry. Senior Dominic Robinson added 59 yards on 12 carries for an average of nearly five per carry.

Noon completed 3-of-5 passes for 82 yards. They all went for 14 or more yards and helped the Bluebirds convert on 6-of-10 third-down tries for 60 percent and 1-of-2 on fourth down for 50 percent. Junior wide receiver Oliver Harris had one catch for 14 yards.

Conner did drive the ball into Highlands territory. But Highlands senior defensive back Bryson Cody picked off two passes and held the Cougars to 3-of-11 on third down for 27 percent and 3-of-6 on fourth down for 50 percent.

"We made them drive the length of the field multiple times," Cody said. "What we try to do as a defense is prevent the big plays. But it happens sometimes. We played a great defensive game. Everyone has to be on the same page. Our defense isn't just one player. It's all 11 of us on the field. When that doesn't happen, that's when big play happen. That's when you lose game."

Cougar junior quarterback Alex Castrucci completed 13-of-24 passes for 165 yards. Senior running back Colton Roy had 71 yards rushing on 21 carries and two touchdown for an average of between three and four yards per touch to go with one catch for 22 yards.

"I think we got great pressure up front," said Conner Shelton, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "I think we kept everything on the edges inside and in front (of us). Our (linebackers) played the contain game."

Sophomore wide receiver Alijah Thompson led the Cougars with three catches for 62 yards. Junior wide receiver Cody Crawford had four for 59.

Highlands took the opening kickoff down the field and ate up five minutes, 17 seconds before scoring. Noon took the ball up the middle on the read for the 12-yard touchdown. Conner blocked the point-after kick leaving the score 6-0 Bluebirds.

The Cougars earned a few first downs on their first possession. But on 4th-and-2 at the Highlands 40, the Bluebirds forced Castrucci to throw an incomplete pass.

The Bluebirds drove 60 yards down the field for Noon's second touchdown. Noon escaped the pocket around the left side and scored from 16 yards out to put Highlands up 13-0 after sophomore kicker Davis Burleigh booted the extra point with 10:22 left in the first half.

Conner did drive into Highlands territory on its next possession. But on fourth down, Cody recorded his first interception of the year when senior linebacker Mason South tipped a Castrucci pass and returned it to the Conner 28.

Highlands scored a big touchdown with 13.6 seconds left in the first half. On fourth down, Noon found junior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd for a 23-yard touchdown and Burleigh made the PAT. Noon completed a 45-yard pass to sophomore Ryan DeBurger to set up the score. Highlands led 20-0 at halftime.

"(The coaches) drew that play up this week and it worked really well," Lloyd said. "(Conner) double-teamed (junior wide receiver) Isaac (Surrey). Isaac was in the slot. He was supposed to run at the safety and take him out. It was supposed to leave the middle wide open and it was."

The Cougars scored the first points in two meetings against the Bluebirds with 46.7 seconds left in the third quarter. Roy ran around the right end for a touchdown after Castrucci completed a long pass on fourth down. Senior Nicholas Keller made the PAT to trim the Highlands lead to 20-7 entering the fourth quarter.

Conner made things interesting with 7:04 left in the game. Roy ran over the middle for a 7-yard touchdown run and Keller made the PAT to make it 20-14 Bluebirds.

But Noon recorded his biggest run of the season with 10 Cougars packed in the box near the line of scrimmage. Noon broke free down the left sideline for a 56-yard touchdown with 2:57 left in the game and Burleigh booted the PAT to put Highlands up 27-14.

"We never really quit in those type of games," Noon said. "We were up and yeah, we didn't have a lot of momentum. But the offensive line made some good blocks. The running back ran the fake well. The outside receiver had a great block. Everyone had a good game."

Conner did drive into Highlands territory. But in the final minutes, Cody picked off another Castrucci pass over the middle. Following a number of penalties, Highlands kneeled on the ball a couple times. Following some Cougar timeouts, Noon ran out of the back of the end zone with 25.4 seconds left in the game for the safety.

"Defense really stepped up and made the plays when we needed them," Weinrich said. "Third downs were key. We did a good job at times to stop them to allow ourselves to get the ball back and flip the field. Field positions at certain times in the game was really critical. The defense did a good job putting the team in position to do that."

The Cougars received a nice return on the ensuing kickoff. But a targeting call moved the ball back to the Conner 28. Conner ran three plays before the end of the game.

The penalties turned out nearly even. Highlands had four for 33 yards and Conner had three for 35.

The win gives the Bluebirds another shot at Covington Catholic (8-1) on Friday in Park Hills. Game time is 7 p.m.

Box Score:

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