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Thursday, August 26, 2021

Highlands travels to Simon Kenton, looking to start 2-0

Turnovers Key in Match-Up

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior linebacker Mason Welsch gets in position in the win over Bowling Green on Saturday. Highlands travels to Independence to take on the Simon Kenton Pioneers at 7 p.m. Friday.

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The Bluebirds knocked off the defending Class 5A state champion Bowling Green Purples, 21-18 on Saturday at Western Kentucky University to open the season. It made the trip of more than three hours home enjoyable.

"We basked in the win," said Jackson Higgason, Highlands senior linebacker. "Everyone's excited. But we just can't let it go to our heads. (Highlands Head) Coach (Bob) Sphire is doing a good job of grounding us and keeping us at the high playing field that Highlands should be at."

Sphire said the team came in Sunday afternoon. The team watched film from the Bowling Green game then started talking about the next game Friday at 7 p.m. at Chlorine B. Menefee Stadium in Independence. The host Simon Kenton Pioneers enter the game off a 35-29 home loss to the Oldham County Colonels to start the season.

"When we have a win like we had, I want them to enjoy it," Sphire said. "I want them to kind of live in the moment and I do think there comes a point at sometime that afternoon you have to start thinking about your next opponent. You've enjoyed it. You've rehashed it. You've discussed it. You've followed up on text messages with relatives."

Highlands will face a Simon Kenton squad hungry to pave its way back to a level of success it has enjoyed most of the 2010s. The Pioneers made it to the third round of the Class 6A playoffs eight straight years between 2012 and 2019. Simon Kenton drove to the state semifinals in 2015 losing 42-28 to eventual state runner-up Lexington Lafayette.

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Jeff Marksberry
is in his 22nd season as the head coach of the Pioneers. Simon Kenton finished 3-7 in 2020 for its first losing season since 2011. But the Pioneers battled Dixie Heights in a 34-33 first round playoff loss.

Third-year junior starting quarterback Chase Crone leads the Simon Kenton Spread offense. Crone completed 10-of-21 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Oldham County. But he also rushed for 105 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown for an average of just more than six yards per carry.

The Pioneers run a Spread offense. But Sphire said they have do a lot more of a counter trey gap scheme unlike the more common zone read schemes. Sphire said Simon Kenton's scheme is more physical than zone schemes.

Sphire said the counter trey gap scheme leaves run-through lanes for defenders. That could lead to hits on Crone. But Sphire said things need to be executed right or Crone could easily go 80 yards for a touchdown.

"The running back, quarterback zone read is a big part of what they do," Sphire said. "The quarterback will pull it out, flip it out and throw the bubble screen. He's going to have a lot of opportunities to make decisions. On drop-back passes, he's a really good scrambler. He keeps his eyes downfield. He'll press all the way up and flip it late if you come out of coverage. He got hit a few times early pretty good (against Oldham County). It never rattled him."

Highlands has run its own version of the Spread offense for years. The Bluebirds faced one Saturday against Bowling Green. But senior quarterback Spencer Newman is more of a drop-back passer. Newman rolled to the right and left some hitting wide receivers on short and intermediate passes. 

The Purples ran some jet sweeps and pounded the ball in between the tackles with senior Tyler Moore. Bowling Green had some success running in between the tackles. But the Bluebirds did not allow many big plays in their 3-4 defense.

Highlands also listed junior running back Jayden Lawson as a big play threat. Oldham County held Lawson to 5 yards rushing on 11 carries and two catches for 23 yards. Junior wide receiver Chase Williams led Simon Kenton with three catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.

"That's going to be huge because this is more assignment football," Sphire said. "If you don't stay disciplined to your assignment, they'll exploit it and make a big play off it. The quarterback is the number one guy who can do that to you. You can't chase the shiny light if it's not your assignment. You can't get caught in that."

Turnovers played a huge role in the results of the season openers for both teams. Highlands did not turn the ball over against Bowling Green while Simon Kenton lost three fumbles against Oldham County. The Bluebirds picked off three passes and recovered a fumble against the Purples while the Colonels did not turn the ball over against the Pioneers.

"That gave Oldham County three extra possessions," Marksberry said of the turnovers. "We can not lose possessions and opportunities to score. (The Colonels) scored on all three of the extra possessions. Taking care of the football and limiting the big play are areas that need improving."

Highlands junior linebacker Sam Robinson took a Newman interception 30 yards untouched for a touchdown. Robinson had two picks with senior defensive back Isaac Surrey picking off another Newman pass and junior defensive back Adam Dunn recovered a Bowling Green fumble.

"That's just a general rule of football," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "If you take care of the football, you give yourself a chance. You don't put your defense in a bad position."

Highlands may not have sacked Newman on Saturday. But the Bluebirds did have four tackles for a loss. Senior Henry King had two with sophomore defensive back Carson Class and junior lineman TreVaughn Woods recording one each. Bob Sphire said the Bluebirds have to tackle better against Simon Kenton.

The Highlands Spread offense put together 205 yards of total offense against Bowling Green. Junior quarterback Charlie Noon could not play Saturday after starting most of last season as a sophomore. It is unknown whether he will play Friday.

But sophomore Brody Benke stepped in completing 13-of-23 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns against Bowling Green. That caught Marksberry's attention. Benke hit Class for a 63-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter before hitting junior Brennan Kelsay for an 11-yard touchdown.

The Bluebirds rushed for 50 yards for a total of 205 yards offensively against the stout Bowling Green defense. Benke rushed for 28 yards on 15 carries to lead Highlands there and senior wide receiver Jake Welch had a team-high four catches for 63 yards. Senior running back Griffin Richter and senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd had two catches each.

The successful Highlands teams of the past ran and passed the ball well making teams defend the entire field. The Bluebirds hope to take some lessons facing the stout Bowling Green front seven and going on some long and sustained drives.

"We just have to keep working and getting better as the season goes on," said Wilson Bibb, Highlands junior offensive lineman. "(The Purples) are really good at being aggressive. We just have to come out of the gate hard and never stop. Once everyone does his job, we'll get going."

Oldham County may have put up 410 yards of total offense including 265 through the air against Simon Kenton's 3-4 defense. But Bob Sphire said the Pioneer defense settled in as the game progressed.

"They play with great effort," Hayden Sphire said. "They've got kids who are going to play hard every single snap. They're going to come get the quarterback. They have good players. We've got good players. Both teams are going to play hard. We'll see what happens."

The Pioneers did record three tackles for a loss and two quarterback sacks in the loss to Oldham County. Senior linebacker Chase Gill had 13 tackles and two quarterback sacks for the Pioneers with junior linebacker Josh Bowling recording 13 tackles. Junior defensive lineman Aidan Harris and senior defensive lineman Joe Vormbrock recorded 10 tackles each.

Bob Sphire did say Simon Kenton is ahead of Highlands in the kicking game and that is a concern. Highlands junior placekicker Davis Burleigh did hit all three extra-point attempts. Sophomore Andrew Petty hit all three for Simon Kenton in the loss to Oldham County.

Highlands did have a short practice Monday because of the heat. But Bob Sphire said many teams in the area probably had to deal with that.

The Bluebirds are 27-5 all-time against the Pioneers. The two did not play each other from 1999 through 2014. Since the series resumed in 2015, Simon Kenton has won four of the six meetings. But Highlands had won two straight before dropping a 27-14 decision in Fort Thomas last year.


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