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Current Highlands Bluebirds football Head Coach Bob Sphire recalled the Bowling Green Purples being strong during his time playing for the Meade County Green Wave located southwest of Louisville in the 1970s.
Highlands begins his tenure playing the defending Class 5A state champion Purples on Saturday in the Rafferty's Bowl at Western Kentucky University. Game time is 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
The Purples knocked off Owensboro, 17-7 in the Class 5A title game in Lexington last December after coming north and knocking off Covington Catholic, 20-0 in the state semifinals finishing the season 10-2. Bowling Green has won seven state championship including six since 2011. The 2020 crown marked the first under current Head Coach Mark Spader.
The Bowling Green administration promoted Spader to Head Coach in 2018 after 22-year veteran Head Coach Kevin Wallace took the head job at Louisville St. Xavier. Spader had been on staff from 1991 to 1993 before coming back in 2004 as an assistant under Wallace. Spader served as Bowling Green's Defensive Coordinator from 2013 to 2017. He had previous head coaching experience leading nearby Warren East from 1998 to 2001.
"They've always had athletes and they'll always have athletes I believe and it's a really good high school," Sphire said. "Students in that area probably want to go to that school and be in that program."
Sphire and staff are trying to guide the Bluebirds back to that level of dominance they've enjoyed throughout most of their storied past. Highlands owns 23 state championships in school history. But the Bluebirds have gone 38-34 since the last one in 2014 with just one double-digit win season at 10-3 in 2018.
Highlands lost 41-7 against Class 6A favorite Louisville Male in a scrimmage Aug. 6. The Bluebirds then had a Blue and White scrimmage Aug. 13. Bowling Green scrimmaged Owensboro before also scrimmaging Male this past Friday.
The team knows the Purples may be the favorites. But the Bluebirds hope to go down there and play loose knowing they have nothing to lose.
"Our season is not invested in one game. One of the things that has been our mantra coming out of the Male scrimmage is just do your job," Sphire said. "We had some plays against Male where people got out of their assignments because they were trying to be heroes. They were trying to do more than their job and I think that's something you have to learn in a team setting. If you try to do more than your job, suddenly you hurt the team more than you help the team."
The Purples return six starters off their dominant defense last year. Bowling Green outscored opponents, 333-115 for averages of nearly 28 to around 9.5 points per game last year. The Purples allowed 800 yards rushing and 1901 yards passing last year for averages of just under 67 rushing and just more than 158 passing last year.
Spader said Bowling Green runs an odd-man front defensively with multiple adjustments. Seniors Jeremiah Lightfoot, Bradley Gurley and Amario Wilson anchor the defensive line. Lightfoot had 73 tackles, six tackles for a loss and six sacks last year. Gurley led the Purples with 40 tackles, six tackles for a loss and two sacks. Wilson had 20 tackles, three tackles for a loss and three sacks.
"They have set the tone for practices and scrimmages to this point and will give us a great foundation to build on this season," Spader said of Bowling Green's defensive linemen. "Though we only replace a few pieces on that side of the ball, it is the concept of true team defense that made us special last season. We'll see if we can get to that level again."
Senior Tyler Moore anchors the linebackers. He is the team's leading returning tackler with 86. Moore earned the Class 5A title game's most valuable player honors tallying 11 solo and three assisted tackles. Seniors Davis Moran and TyTavus Hampton also expect to contribute after combining for 91 tackles. Moran tied for the team lead with six sacks.
Veteran juniors Bert Kibawa and Augustin Nyembo lead the Bowling Green secondary. Kibawa had 69 tackles including a second-best 34 solo and Nyembo had 30 total tackles.
"They tackle really well. They play sound defense," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "They do what they're coached to do. They don't bust a lot of assignments. Usually, defensive linemen are in the right gaps. Linebackers are flying to the ball. Corners are staying in coverage. They have great athletes on top of it. When you have great athletes that are well fundamentally coached, you have a pretty good football team."
The Highlands Spread offense knows it needs more balance this year to move the ball against solid defenses. Opponents outscored the Bluebirds, 302-240 last year for averages of just above 27 to just under 22 points per game. Highlands rushed for 1,933 yards and passed for 1,032 for averages of just below 176 rushing and just below 94 passing.
Things start with the return of junior quarterback Charlie Noon. Noon hopes to lead an improved passing attack. Teams tried to focus on stopping his legs after he recorded just under 48 percent of the carries last year. Noon rushed for 1,089 yards on 202 carries and 10 touchdowns last year for an average of about 5.4 yards per carry last year. Noon also completed 68-of-134 passes for 926 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
The offensive line is led by senior returning starters Conner Barton and Kaleb Kissee. Highlands is known to use its speed to succeed against bigger defensive linemen. Barton said the team changed the offensive scheme from last year and the linemen are using more hand and feet drills.
"We just have to go out there, play some hard-nosed football and do everything we've done," Barton said. "We go to practice every day and play hard. We've been doing this our whole lives so it has to be something we do."
Senior running backs Griffin Richter and junior Dawson Hosea hope to take the load off Noon. They battled injuries most of last season. The top two leading returning wide receivers are senior Jake Welch with 10 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns and junior Brennan Kelsay with 14 receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown. Welch made some brilliant plays in the Blue and White scrimmage. Other wide receivers such as seniors Oliver Harris, Clayton Lloyd and juniors Adam Dunn and Ryan DeBurger hope to add to the offensive diversity this year.
"I thought our focus was really good. I thought we came out with great rhythm," Hayden Sphire said of the Blue and White scrimmage. "We were able to be truthful with ourselves. (Male) exposed just about everything we needed to work on."
Bowling Green returns two starters in its Spread offense in junior offensive lineman Austin Anderson and senior wide receiver Will Vale. Vale had 15 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown last year. Bob Sphire said the team will look at the film from the Male scrimmage to try to figure out some things the Purples will run with new starting personnel.
Senior Spencer Newman will take over the quarterback role for the Purples after backing up last year's starter in Conner Cooper. Newman completed 10-of-13 passes for 100 yards, one touchdown and one interception last year.
"Spencer Newman has waited his turn and taken the reigns of the offense from the moment he stepped off the baseball diamond this year," Spader said. "He is a great leader and competitor, and I feel he'll be up to the task of leading the other new offensive starters through this season."
The Purples had a balanced 1,810 yards rushing and 1,869 passing last year. They averaged just under 151 rushing and just under 156 yards passing. Highlands senior outside linebacker/nose tackle Henry King said Bowling Green likes to use a hard count. But Bob Sphire said the Bluebirds face that in practice a good bit.
"It's about practicing a lot. I myself struggle with that. But I'm getting better," King said. "You look at the ball. We're going to be disciplined this week. There's no more preseason now. We're going to be focused and we're ready to win."
Out of a 3-5 defensive scheme, Highlands allowed 1,896 yards rushing and 1,118 passing for averages of just more than 172 rushing and just below 102 passing. The Bluebirds had 13 interceptions and four fumble recoveries last year.
The Bluebirds have switched back to a 3-4 defensive scheme this year. Junior linebacker Sam Robinson returns after leading the Bluebirds with 10 tackles for a loss and two fumble recoveries. Robinson is the team's leading returning tackler with 41 including four sacks to go with two interceptions. Other key returning players on the defensive side of the ball include seniors Eli LaFrange, George King, Mason Welsch and Ivan Roller.
Highlands was not able to practice in full pads on Wednesday and Thursday last week because of the heat index. But the team made the most of the situation.
"It's kind of like two steps up. I can't say one step back because I think just about everyone in the state was in that situation," Bob Sphire said. "But relative to our program, Bowling Green could go through a couple days like that with the heat and it probably doesn't affect them. We need every practice rep we can get. We needed more live reps that we could coach up on live video. Until we play next week, I don't know how much progress we've made."
Bob Sphire served as Head Coach of the Lexington Catholic Knights from 1991 to 2005 before heading to Georgia. The Knights won their first of two state championships in 2005 besting Bowling Green, 49-21 in the Class 3A title game. That LexCath team beat Highlands, 17-0 at David Cecil Memorial Stadium in the region title game. Spader recalled that game.
"(Bob Sphire) has more than earned our respect," Spader said. "When his coaching prowess is combined with the rich football tradition at Highlands, we see immediate improvement and an expectation for excellence."
Highlands and Bowling Green are playing each other for the first time since the Bluebirds beat the Purples, 28-7 in the Class 5A state championship game Dec. 7, 2007 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.
The Bluebirds have won three of the four meetings against the Purples in school history. Bowling Green beat Highlands, 28-12 in the Class 3A title game in 1995 in legendary Head Coach Dale Mueller's second of 20 seasons.
The teams met during the regular season in 1960 and 1961 during the Homer Rice tenure as head coach of the Bluebirds. Highlands beat Bowling Green, 26-13 in 1960 then 49-46 in 1961.
Directions to Houchens Industries - L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green:
Go South on I-471 to I-275.
Go West on I-275 to I-71/I-75.
Go South on I-71/I-75 to split-off just north of Walton.
Go South on I-71 to Louisville.
Once in Louisville, Go South on I-65 via Exit 1B.
Take I-65 South to Exit 28.
Merge onto Kentucky 446 West toward US 31 West in Bowling Green.
Keep left at fork following signs for US 31 West South/Louisville Road.
Continue straight on Kentucky Street.
Kentucky Street turns slightly right and becomes Adams Street.
Adams Street becomes University Boulevard.
Stadium is on the left.
Trip is approximately three hours, 21 minutes and 219 miles.