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Friday, October 22, 2021

Highlands at Cooper Football Preview

Bluebirds Conclude Regular Season at Jaguars

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior offensive lineman Conner Barton (72) tries to pave the way for quarterback Charlie Noon (1) in the game against Covington Catholic on Friday.

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The Highlands Bluebirds football team knows it will be in the playoffs in two weeks.

It is just a matter of going in as the fourth seed out of Class 5A, District 5 or higher. The Bluebirds (4-5 overall, 1-2 district) need to defeat the Cooper Jaguars (6-2, 2-1) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Union in order to potentially finish higher. 

1017 S. Fort Thomas Ave. 

A win over Cooper and a CovCath win over Conner would force a three-way tie for second at 2-2. The Ratings Percentage Index would then determine the seeding after the final week of the regular season. That happened last year and Highlands took the third seed heading over to Conner and winning in the first round of the playoffs before losing to Covington Catholic.

The Jaguars come into the game on a three-game winning streak. They have outscored opponents, 242-84 for an average of just above 30 to just above 10 points per game. The Bluebirds have outscored opponents, 232-174 for an average of just below 26 to just above 19 points per game. 

"I think this is the best-coached team we've played all year," Highlands Head Coach Bob Sphire said of Cooper. "I think they're the best fundamentally-sound (team). They execute at a high level. They give a ton of formations - a lot of unbalanced. They're pretty big and physical. They do everything well."

The two Cooper losses came by a touchdown. The Jaguars lost 14-7 to Ryle at home Sept. 3. They took defending district champion Covington Catholic to four overtimes before losing 31-24 Sept. 24 in Park Hills.

"We have the same motivation each week. Our kids worry about controlling what they can control," said Randy Borchers, Cooper Head Coach. "We are not worried about seeding or the RPI. Our focus each week is to win that game and to get better. We feel that if we can do that, everything else will take care of itself. We have four really good teams in our district so at the end of the day, you better be ready to play your best each week or you will get beat."

Sphire said the next step for Highlands is learning how to win close games. The Bluebirds lost a tight 8-7 decision to Covington Catholic. The Colonels blocked a 30-yard Highlands field goal attempt in the final minutes to hold on for the victory after scoring late and taking the lead on a two-point run following a close Highlands offsides call.

"Little things are big things in competitive games when you play a CovCath or someone like that," Sphire said. "The bottom line is we played our tails off in a lot of ways for 47 minutes in that game and basically in about one minute of special teams time between our punt game, obviously our field goal scenario and then our extra-point defense, that's really the difference in that game. But that's why special teams are so critical."

But the tackling has improved every week, especially in these last two games for Highlands. Senior linebacker Oliver Harris said the team works on it in the mornings and afternoons in practice unlike previous years when the team would only work on technique in practice in order to reduce the risk of injuries. Bob Sphire commended Highlands for doing a better job of not letting go after the first hit against Covington Catholic.

"We carried it over this week and we have to carry it over even better next week," Harris said. "It's hard to simulate full-go tackling in practice. But our coaches do a great job of getting us reps like that to drill out and get that muscle memory down."

Highlands has allowed 1,460 yards rushing and 1,162 passing for averages of just more than 162 rushing and 129 passing. Highlands senior defensive back Isaac Surrey leads the Bluebirds with 46 tackles on the season with six tackles for a loss and one sack. Junior defensive back Adam Dunn and junior linebacker are second with 43 tackles each. Robinson has five tackles for a loss and two sacks.

Highlands has six fumble recoveries and five interceptions this year. Robinson has two of each to lead the Bluebirds. Senior defensive lineman Henry King has scored touchdowns in each of the past two games.

Sphire said he's watched the tape from last year's 48-21 loss to Cooper in Fort Thomas. The tandem of quarterback Jeremiah Lee and running back Eric Wright rushed for a combined 401 yards and five touchdowns in that game.

Those two graduated. But senior Brendon Tye and junior Eli White have emerged to give Cooper a formidable punch in the backfield behind senior quarterback Drew Warth. Tye has rushed for 908 yards on 105 carries and 12 touchdowns for an average of between eight and nine yards per carry. 

White has 603 yards rushing on 92 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards per carry. But White did not play in the 34-0 win over Boone County on Friday.

Cooper has rushed for 1,722 and passed for 1,175 on the season for averages of just more than 191 and just more than 130 per game. Warth has completed 84-of-125 passes for that total with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. His top target has been senior wide receiver Alex Turner with 17 catches for 328 yards and four touchdowns. Borchers said the Jaguars have controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

"Our offense has been able to stay in front of the chains and not get in second and third and long," Borchers said. "Drew has done a great job of managing the game and running our offense. He understands what we want to do offensively and does a great job of staying within our game plan."

The Highlands offense has focused on executing better this week. The Bluebirds have put up 1,753 yards passing and 978 rushing for averages of just below 195 passing and 109 rushing.

"I really thought outside of two or three plays in the first half, we really executed our game plan well," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We wanted to shorten the game, run the ball, control the clock and give us a chance at the end of the game, which we absolutely did. I thought we controlled that game for 44 minutes then CovCath got it back with about four and a half. We missed a few easy reads that caused us to have a loss of yardage here or there. It took us into halftime to make those adjustments whereas if we execute throughout the entire game, it's probably a different story."

Highlands junior quarterback Charlie Noon continues to lead the offense. He's completed 86-of-148 passes for 1,307 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. Noon has rushed for 529 yards on 102 carries and three touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry.

Robinson has emerged in recent weeks running the ball. He has 46 carries for 163 yards and one touchdown for an average of between three and four yards per carry and 16 catches for 149 yards.

"Having me back there makes (opponents) take their eyes off Charlie a lot more," Robinson said. "They can get me out wide, get me in space more often and help block for him. That helps create more opportunities for both of us to make bigger plays for the team. We have players that can make explosive plays."

Robinson said things like missing a little block here, a double-team there or a missed screen that a wide receiver did not see play called have kept the Bluebirds struggling offensively. But 18 different Bluebirds have receptions this year. Senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd has a team-high 22 catches for 273 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Carson Class has 11 catches for 265 yards and five touchdowns including a key catch on 4th-and-10 late in the game against Covington Catholic. 

Sophomore wide receivers Davis Hinegardner and Matteo Matteoli have 13 and 8 receptions for 217 and 154 yards respectively for Highlands. Hinegardner has two touchdowns and Matteoli has one.

"Obviously, we know that the offense is going to run through (Noon) and we need to control him to have a chance to win," Borchers said. "However, they have many other players who can make plays. They always have a very athletic defense that will fly around and hit you. They are athletic on the defensive line and they do a nice job of causing havoc in the backfield. They also do a nice job in the secondary taking your passing game away. They always have great special teams that are capable of making big plays if you make a mistake."

Cooper has allowed 1,460 yards rushing and 1,162 passing in its 4-2-5 defense that includes three linebackers for averages of between 182 and 183 rushing and just above 145 passing. Sophomore linebacker Jack Lonaker leads the Jaguars with 99 tackles.

"Their linebackers play really well downhill. The (defensive) line is young and really good," Hayden Sphire said. "Their corners and safeties do a really good job of not getting beat deep and keeping everything in front of them. I think they just cause a lot of people to beat themselves. They don't have anyone who necessarily stands out. But they put 11 really good high school football players on the field."

Cooper has nine fumble recoveries on the season and three interceptions. Junior linebacker Jake Harmeyer leads Cooper with four fumble recoveries.

"Our players have been very disciplined defensively and have prevented the big plays," Borchers said. "We have a defensive group (of players) who have bought into doing their job and they love to play with each other."

Highlands junior kicker Davis Burleigh has continued to be solid kicking the ball. He has made 29-of-30 point after touchdown kicks and 1-of-3 field goal tries. Cooper has made 25-of-28 PATs and 3-of-5 field goal tries.

The Bluebirds lead the overall series 4-2 since it started in 2015. The two competed in non-district games between 2015 and 2018. Highlands won four in a row until Cooper won last year.


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