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Friday, September 10, 2021

PREVIEW: Highlands Heads Across River to Face Cincinnati McNicholas

Bluebirds Ready for Battle of 3-0 Teams

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior running back Dawson Hosea looks for running room in the win over Campbell County on Friday.

The one team on the schedule the Highlands Bluebirds football team has never faced in school history also happens to be the last one that is undefeated.

The Bluebirds cross the Ohio River to face the Cincinnati Archbishop McNicholas Rockets in a battle of 3-0 teams Friday in the Skyline Crosstown Showdown. Game time is 7 p.m. at Penn Station Stadium.

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"I think this process is going to expose that if we don't (mentally reset after each game) because this is a long-range plan and we hope to play 15 games so we gave them (Labor Day) off,"
said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "It wasn't being soft. It wasn't one of those things where we were celebrating the arrival of greatness. It was more the fact of measuring how hard they've worked, how hard they had to play and the opportunity to take a 72-hour break was pretty critical in this situation I think. Are they mature enough to handle it and refocus? I guess we'll find out. McNich is going to have a lot to do with that because (the Rockets) are a really good football team. We're going to have to be mentally sharp."

The strength of schedule favors Highlands in this match-up. The combined record of the three Highlands opponents is 3-6 while the combined record of McNicholas' three Ohio opponents is 0-8. Highlands has outscored the opposition, 116-63 for an average of just below 39 points per game to 21. The Rockets have outscored the opposition, 103-27 for averages of just above 34 points per game to nine.

"It's going to be a hard-fought, physical football game. You can see that on film," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "They are an extremely well-coached football team across the board - very fundamental. (The Rockets) play harder than anyone we've played up to this point. They're very similar to us in style, pace of play, physicality, pursuit to the ball. I think it's going to be a four-quarter fist fight."

Both teams enter the game off their most complete games of the season. Highlands beat Campbell County, 42-7 in Fort Thomas while McNicholas beat Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, 41-0 for its first shutout of the season. McNicholas is a member of the six-team Greater Catholic League Co-Eds.

"Our kids have been really intentional with the work that they have put in so far and it is always great to see this type of commitment justified and affirmed," said Mike Orlando, McNicholas Head Coach. "We understand that there is a long way to go. But we appreciate some of the things we have been able to earn early on in this season."

The Highlands Spread offense has moved the ball well for the most part in recent weeks. The Bluebirds have put up 397 yards rushing and 794 passing for averages of just more than 132 rushing and just below 264 passing.

Senior quarterback Charlie Noon leads Highlands in both categories completing 33-of-52 passes for 552 yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. Noon has rushed for 197 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown for an average of just under nine yards per carry.

"They are very talented and the best team that we will have faced so far," Orlando said. "They force you to defend the entire field and they have multiple players that will be very challenging to defend."

Thirteen different Bluebirds have catches on the season. Senior Jake Welch leads the way with 16 catches for 299 yards and two touchdowns. 

But a number of Bluebirds have had big catches on the season such as seniors Clayton Lloyd, Oliver Harris and sophomores Davis Hinegardner and Carson Class. Class had a huge touchdown catch against Bowling Green and Lloyd had two touchdown catches against Simon Kenton. Hinegardner had a dazzling touchdown reception down the left sideline.

"We constantly have guys stepping up," Hayden Sphire said. "Injuries happen. Somebody might be out in a practice but hopefully can play on Friday. Guys are getting quality reps in practice. We're constantly getting better at our schemes. If somebody is supposed to pull, they're starting to learn where their landmark is in the pull scheme. It's just a matter of repetition and staying healthy. Come playoff time, it's usually the teams that are healthiest have the best shot come November and December. We have to get guys ready. But I'm pleased with our development so far in the offensive line."

The Bluebirds hope to see more production from the running backs. That starts up front with the offensive line led by seniors Kaleb Kissee and Conner Barton. Junior Dawson Hosea is second with 66 yards on 18 carries for an average of just under four per carry. Senior Griffin Richter has not been able to play the last two games. The coaching staff has tried to build the playbook around the players adding more diversity this year. 

"Sometimes you're running the play and then you see something, you just do whatever you can do to get around (defenders)," said Dylan Honchell, Highlands senior running back. "Sometimes if they're small enough, we can just truck (them over) to get to the first down marker. Our running game has improved since last year and we're improving on our catches, too."

McNicholas employs a 4-3 defense that has allowed 332 yards rushing and 294 passing for averages of just under 111 rushing and 98 passing. Senior linebacker Jack Suttles and senior defensive lineman Will Reuss lead the Rockets with 20 tackles each. Senior linebacker Colin Fix earned All-GCL Co-Eds Second Team honors last year and Suttles landed a spot on the first team. Fix has 14 tackles on the season.

The Rockets do not have any fumble recoveries. But they have picked off four passes. Suttles and junior defensive back Joey Baca have returned interceptions for touchdowns this year. Orlando said the Rockets do not have any superstars defensively. But they have a group of players willing to do what is asked on each repetition.

"I'm still going to do what we do," Hayden Sphire said. "We're very versatile offensively. Obviously we'd love to be able to run the ball down (opponents') throats every play. But I don't know how realistic that is. You have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to take your shots. Some teams are going to play off (wide receivers) and that's fine. I'm content taking what they give us. But at the same time if we think we can manufacture a shot play where we think we can get Jake Welch or somebody behind the defense, we're going to take our chances. I try not to let the defense dictate what I'm going to call. I want to be able to run our offense whether it'd be throwing a hitch, throwing a vertical or running the ball."

The Highlands 3-4 defense took major steps forward against Campbell County, especially with tackling. The Camels tried to run downhill all game. But the Bluebirds held them to seven first downs with five coming in the fourth quarter.

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"We grinded it out in practice,"
said George King, Highlands senior defensive back. "We did our regular routines. But we did a lot of individual tackling drills just to get everyone really focused on going for the legs and not get caught with those arm-tackles. Most of us believe in effort more than we believe in talent. I feel like that's what is going to carry us to the top."

The Bluebirds have allowed 493 yards rushing and 569 passing for averages of just more than 164 rushing and just under 190 passing per game. Highlands has had one defensive touchdown in each of its first three games. Junior defensive back Ryan DeBurger returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown in the win over Campbell County.

The Highlands defensive line has been getting pressure on quarterbacks. Junior defensive lineman TreVaughn Woods had three tackles for a loss and senior defensive lineman Henry King has two tackles for a loss and a quarterback sack.

Highlands is a plus-five in the turnover category with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Junior linebacker Sam Robinson and DeBurger have two picks each. Class returned a fumble 30 yards for a touchdown in the win at Simon Kenton.

"They appear to be a downhill bunch that plays well in space," Orlando said. "They are athletic and play really hard, always getting multiple players to the football. They don't seem to have any weaknesses and we will need to play really well if we hope to have some success on Friday night."

The Rockets employ a Shotgun Spread Offense that starts up front with senior offensive lineman Joe Walters. McNich has rushed for 656 yards and passed for 320 for averages of just under 219 and 107 per game.

McNich runs multiple looks offensively. Senior quarterback Pierce Taylor has rushed for 245 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns for an average of 9.4 yards per carry and completed 22-of-33 passes for 253 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Taylor converted from wide receiver to quarterback in the offseason.

Senior running back Ty Snyder leads the Rockets rushing attack with 279 yards on 33 carries and five touchdowns for an average of 8.5 yards per carry. Senior running back Wyatt Gear has rushed for 101 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown for an average of 5.6 yards per touch.

"They get under center quite a bit, too," Bob Sphire said. "They are more diverse than anyone we've played. Simon Kenton was really good at what (the Pioneers) do. But they never got under center. They never played with a true tight end. This bunch will give us tight end sets. They will give us tight end wing sets. They'll give us unbalanced sets. They'll get under center and run downhill and I'm not sure that's the best thing they do. They put (Snyder) back there seven yards deep when (Taylor) is under center and that quarterback reverses out and hands the ball to him deep and (Snyder) can run downhill and make the cuts. Really, (the Rockets) have the whole menu. I think this is a tremendous challenge Friday."

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Taylor has shown the propensity to fake a hand-off then throw to a wide receiver. Junior Ben Bobo leads the Rockets with 13 catches for 155 yards. Bob Sphire said a big key could be Highlands winning the game of inches when Taylor tries to fit the ball in small holes to wide receivers or throw it over top because Highlands bites too soon on fake runs.

"They have some (run-pass option) stuff so some of the defenses they've faced have maybe given them the ability to hand it off at that point instead of throwing it," Bob Sphire said. "When (Taylor) does pull it and throw it, he's really effective and he can throw the ball down the field really, really well. They have some (four wide receivers running vertical routes) in their offensive passing game. They have some vertical-switch (routes). But number two (Snyder) and number eight (Taylor) are clearly Friday Night going to be two of the best players on the field. If they can run it down our throats, we're in for a really long night. They're going to make their plays because they're really good football players. We're going to have to be really, really disciplined."

Highlands is seeking its first 4-0 start since the 2014 Class 4A state championship team did it. That team started 6-0 and finished 8-2 during the regular season.

Directions to McNicholas High School:
Go South on Interstate 471 to Interstate 275
Take Interstate 275 east across the Ohio River into Ohio
Take first exit in Ohio east on US 52
Turn left on Sutton Avenue
Drive two miles then take a right on Salem Road
Drive half a mile then turn left on Beacon Street
Drive less then a mile then turn right on Beechmont Avenue (Ohio 125)
School is on the left

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