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Friday, September 24, 2021

Highlands Travels to Dixie Heights for Final District Tune-Up

Bluebirds, Red Colonels Meet for First Time Since 2018

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior Oliver Harris (14) and sophomore Christian Stojkovic (51) come onto the field before the game Friday against Ryle.

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There is nothing more that the Highlands Bluebirds football team (3-2 overall) would like than to right the ship in the final non-district game of the season.

But the opponent will present its own unique set of challenges coming off the bye week. The Dixie Heights Colonels (2-2) came into the season with high expectations after driving to the third round of the Class 6A playoffs last year for the first time since their state runner-up finish in 2014 in 6A.

The red Colonels have won the two games they scored 42 points in against Lloyd Memorial (42-0) to open the season and Conner (42-26). But they've scored a combined 18 points in the losses to Cooper (19-10) and Covington Catholic (24-8). 

"We have not put a good game together all year," said Dave Brossart, Dixie Heights Head Coach. "We clicked offensively in the pre-season and in our two wins. In our two losses, we moved the ball effectively, but made too many mental mistakes in costly turnovers and penalties at the wrong time. We had chances to take the lead early against CovCath and Cooper and did not take advantage of these early opportunities. Defensively, we played our best game at CovCath last week. The game was only 10-0 in the fourth quarter and we gave them 10 points on a broken play and a fumble. Hopefully, we can put things together this weekend."

A late kickoff return for a score against CovCath prevented the shutout. The red Colonels had 148 yards against CovCath and yielded 237. 

The Colonels have outscored opponents, 102-69 for an average of just more than 25 points to just more than 17 points per game. But Highlands Head Coach Bob Sphire praised Dixie Heights, which has two games left before starting Class 6A, District 6 action.

"You can see the talent level that (the Colonels) have," Sphire said. "Similar to Ryle, they're a lot bigger than us. I don't know how good a job they do in the weight room. But they look really strong on video. They're a good 6A, physical football team that's going to be coached up. When they figure it out, they're going to be really, really tough."

Highlands has lost two in a row after starting the season 3-0. The Bluebirds had chances in both games in the fourth quarter in losses at Cincinnati McNicholas (27-21) and at home against Ryle (27-13). But they could not come through in the clutch. The Bluebirds have outscored opponents, 150-117 for averages of an even 30 to 23.4 points per game.

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The Highlands Spread offense has put up 699 yards rushing and 1,112 yards passing already passing last year's total of 1,032 yards for averages of just under 140 rushing and just more than 222 passing. The Bluebirds are still searching for consistency in the running game outside junior quarterback Charlie Noon with a rotation of players. Highlands Offensive Coordinator Hayden Sphire said junior Noah Hodge, sophomore Ty Boler and freshman Deven James could join that rotation this week.

No one has more than 77 yards rushing on the season outside of Noon. Noon has 395 yards rushing on 60 carries and two touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards per carry. Noon has also completed 57-of-94 passes for 870 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions this year.

The top wide receiver in senior Jake Welch could be out again Friday. That means wide receivers such as seniors Clayton Lloyd, Oliver Harris and the likes of juniors Jack Hendrix and Ryan DeBurger could be called upon more. Sophomores Davis Hinegardner and Carson Class have had big catches this year. But the Bluebirds mainly need Class on defense.

"Everybody that's kind of been waiting for their opportunity, it's starting to present itself," Hayden Sphire said. "For them to get on the field, they have to go out there and make plays. We'll see who steps up to the plate and who wants to play big-time football."

Sophomore wide receiver Mateo Matteoli had three catches for 78 yards and a touchdown against Ryle. The coaching staff would not mind more games like that from Matteoli. Ryle tried to take away the big plays from the Highlands offense. The Bluebirds still made some. But they could not go on long and sustained drives against the Raiders.

"We just need to get all of them mentally focused and we'll be alright," Matteoli said. "We were down a little bit so I thought in my brain, it was time to step up. I was trying to show out. It wasn't for myself. I was trying to do everything for the team and be there for my coaches."

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The Highlands 3-4 defense has allowed 811 yards rushing and 891 passing for averages of 162 yards rushing and just more than 178 passing. The Bluebirds have won every game where they've recorded a takeaway. They've had none in the last two games.

Junior defensive back Adam Dunn continues to lead Highlands with 26 tackles. Senior defensive back Isaac Surrey and junior linebacker Sam Robinson have 21 each. Robinson also leads Highlands with two interceptions.

The Bluebirds face a Dixie Heights offense that runs the zone read, spread and runs downhill similar to McNicholas. That includes a tight end with two running backs in the backfield behind senior quarterback Logan Landers. The Colonels have put up 1,257 yards of total offense for an average of just more than 314 per game.

Bob Sphire said Dixie Heights runs a combination of option, power and spread passing game football along with the play-action pass. The Colonels spend most of the time in the pistol set with one, two or even three backs and employ lots of motion and shifts. Highlands has not faced an option team this year.

"It's a real challenge to get lined up, make the right strength calls," Bob Sphire said. "You get your defense set and comfortable. Then you have to know your option assignments whether you have quarterback, dive or pitch. They have some stuff that's a problem. You have to be really disciplined."

Senior Pierce Rohlman is one of the main running backs for Dixie Heights. The Bluebirds hope to overcome that with athleticism up front like they have in the past with senior defensive linemen such as Ivan Roller, Henry King and junior TreVaughn Woods.

"You have to give them three or four different ways in which they can attack the offensive line. You don't expect a group like we have to just be able to sit back, play read defense and just be in a constant one-on-one battle just across from him," Bob Sphire said. "You have to be able to punch that guy in the mouth sometimes. You have to be able to take his punches. But you also have to be able to slant inside, slant outside. You have to have some twist stunts and some things that you can do to the offensive line because if you let our guys just constantly be a steady target, their offensive line size-wise is a mismatch. Our guys are athletic, can move and they have quickness and speed so it's up to me as the defensive coordinator to move those guys around and give them calls that allow them not to be an easy target."

Bob Sphire mentioned Dixie Heights opened two games throwing vertical routes as deep as possible. That means the Highlands defensive backs such as Dunn, Boler, Class and junior Aiden Nevels have to be on their toes. Dixie Heights has two speedy wide receivers in seniors Kel Hawkins and Devin Holbert. Brossart said teams have been more prepared for Hawkins and Holbert this year.

"The timing is really hard. Coach (Bob Sphire) always says to play the man," Boler said. "When you hear the ball is in the air, you just have to be ready to swat it down. We're really focused on (reading our keys) this week."

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The Dixie Heights defense has allowed 1,032 yards this year for an average of an even 258 yards this year. The Colonels use a mix of 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. Hawkins and Holbert also play on defense.

"I think Ryle was really fast," Hayden Sphire said. "Dixie might be a bit more physical. But they have some athletes. There's no doubt about it."

Brossart said the biggest challenge against Highlands is the name on the visiting team's jerseys. The Bluebirds own 23 state championships in school history. But they have gone 41-36 since winning the last one in 2014.

"Our kids need to believe they can win," Brossart said. "If they don't, they will get beat before they step on the field. Honestly, I am more worried about Dixie Heights than my opponent as of today. We need to keep (Noon) in check and not let him have a big game. I believe in our kids and in the end, if we can eliminate mental mistakes, we can compete against anyone."

Highlands is 66-9 overall against Dixie Heights. The Bluebirds won three of the four meetings when they faced off in the same Class 5A district between 2015 and 2018.

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