|Northern Kentucky Football Fans Mourn Loss of Brian Eviston|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior defensive lineman Carson Schwalbach waits for the signal in the win at Boone County on Friday.|
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The annual football battle between the Covington Catholic Colonels and the Highlands Bluebirds football teams carries the same intensity no matter who the coaches and players may be, but the game may tone down to a degree this year.
CovCath Head Coach Eddie Eviston's brother Brian Eviston passed away Wednesday following a long battle with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Another brother in Sean Eviston, a 2001 Highlands graduate, passed away in August.
The somber tone will surely be felt throughout the game and region and will add a layer to the rivalry. Sometimes sports take a back seat to real life and Friday's game will certainly fit that bill when the two teams play at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m.
The teams are still preparing for the game, an important one for both teams.
"They're still figuring out what they have kind of like we are," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It's week 8. But I don't think either of us know exactly who are 11 starters are going to be come playoff time."
Covington Catholic enters the game 4-3 overall. The Colonels have their most losses in a season since going 9-4 in 2016 losing 35-28 at Louisville Fern Creek in the region title game.
"This is a great game for us to get better off," said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "This is a well-coached team. Particularly offensively, they've got weapons at every position. They're going to spread the ball around. It's going to be a challenge for us defensively."
CovCath blazed to a 44-1 mark the next three seasons finishing undefeated twice winning two Class 5A state championships and finishing state runner-up in 2018. The Colonels finished 10-2 last year losing 20-0 at home to eventual state champion Bowling Green in the state semifinals. The Colonels have outscored opponents, 176-140 for averages of just more than 25 to an even 20 per game.
Despite their struggles, the Colonels continue to do well in Class 5A, District 5 action leading the way at 2-0 overall. The Colonels dug out a 31-24 quadruple overtime win over Cooper before besting Boone County, 39-6. They have won five straight district championships having gone 14-0 against district opponents during the regular season and playoffs in the current cycle.
The Bluebirds enter Friday 4-4 overall coming off their most complete game of the season with a 41-0 shutout of Boone County. They evened their record at 1-1 on district play and snapped a four-game losing streak. Bob Sphire pointed out the Bluebirds are giving up 10 fewer points per game defensively and scoring 10 points more per game than at this point last year.
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"We always get hyped for CovCath week," said Jackson Higgason, Highlands senior linebacker. "But coming off a big win like this, all the juices are flowing and we feel absolutely amazing. We to keep our heads on (straight), remember who we are, stay disciplined and I think we'll be okay."
The Bluebirds shot over the 200 mark for points scored this season at 225 while keeping the points allowed total to 166 in their first shutout of the season. Highlands has outscored opponents by an average of just more than 28 to just more than 20 per game.
The Highlands 3-4 defense dominated the trenches against Boone County holding the Rebels to 48 yards rushing and 90 passing with 10 tackles for a loss and four sacks. Highlands senior defensive lineman Henry King recorded three sacks and Higgason had two tackles for a loss including a sack. Senior defensive lineman Kaleb Kissee also had three tackles for a loss with senior defensive back Isaac Surrey and junior linebacker Sam Robinson recording one tackle for a loss each.
It may be a tougher task against CovCath, which uses a number of Spread formations including the unbalanced line. But the Colonels have nearly doubled their rushing yards over the passing yards at 1,288 rushing and 698 passing for averages of 184 rushing and just under 100 passing. The Bluebirds have allowed totals of 1,344 rushing and 1,146 passing for averages of 168 rushing and just more than 143 passing.
The leading rusher for the Colonels is senior running back Reid Hummel with 411 yards on 64 carries and a touchdown for an average of between six and seven yards per carry. Senior quarterback Preston Agee, who transferred in from Campbell County, is second with 40 carries for 282 yards and six touchdowns for an average of just more than seven yards per carry. Senior running back Brayden Collins is third with 204 yards on 33 carries and four touchdowns for an average of just more than six yards per carry.
Agee, senior Adam Holtz and sophomore Evan Pitzer have seen action at quarterback this year. Holtz is the leading passer having completed 39-of-77 passes for 441 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions. He's also rushed for 131 yards on 46 carries and two touchdowns for an average of between two to three yards per carry. Dual threat quarterbacks have given the Bluebirds problems this year. Pitzer has completed 16-of-30 passes for 231 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Highlands recorded three turnovers and did not give it away in the win at Boone County. The Bluebirds have won every game where they've won the turnover battle. Robinson and junior defensive lineman TreVaughn Woods had fumble recoveries and junior defensive back Adam Dunn recorded his first interception of the season.
Highlands has five fumble recoveries and five interceptions this year. Robinson leads the Bluebirds with two of each.
"I think the defense has crawled and scrapped every game," Bob Sphire said. "They're going to be extremely challenged every snap, they have someone that can take it to the house and they have a full menu offensively. Eddie has his full package in. We don't have all our stuff in yet so he's going to have more options available to him. Honestly in today's world, modern day defensive coordinators can't cover every scenario in today's game with all the run-pass option stuff and all the quarterback run stuff. You have to get all your guys lined up and try to win one-on-one combat as much as you can and let them play football."
The Bluebirds have also used three quarterbacks this year in junior Charlie Noon, sophomores Brody Benke and Cam Bottom. Highlands has rushed for 876 yards and passed for 1,344 this year for averages of just under 110 rushing and 168 passing. Hayden Sphire said all three will be ready to play and packages will be ready for each one.
Noon did not play against Boone County. But he still leads the Bluebirds with 447 yards rushing on 78 carries and three touchdowns for an average of between five and six yards per carry.
Noon has also completed 79-of-135 passes for 1,237 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. But the Bluebirds tried to find ways to get him in space more against Conner where he had two catches for 45 yards.
Robinson has been in the mix more with 38 carries for 142 yards and a touchdown for an average of between three and four yards per carry. Robinson also has 14 catches for 144 yards.
"Obviously, there are 110 plays in a game. You never know which one's going to change the game and often, it's one guy making an incredible individual play," Hayden Sphire said. "But really, it's going to come down to all 11 executing their jobs consistently."
The Bluebirds have seen other players emerge to make big catches out of their Spread offense. Senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd has a team-high 20 receptions for 259 yards passing the injured Jake Welch for the most receptions on the team. Three sophomores in Carson Class (nine for 235, five TDs), Davis Hinegardner (12 for 196, two TDs) and Mateo Matteoli (8 for 154, one TD) are next on the stat sheet.
"It won't do the quarterback any good if you're covered," said Aidan Halpin, Highlands senior wide receiver. "You have to find a way to get open whether that be coming back to the ball or running across the field to get into the quarterback's vision."
Covington Catholic's 3-4 defense has allowed 1,080 rushing and 797 passing. Senior linebacker David Sullivan leads the Colonels with 48 tackles including three for a loss and senior tight end Aiden Jones has 47 with one tackle for a loss and 1.5 quarterback sacks.
The Colonels have recovered four fumbles this year and intercepted seven passes. Senior defensive back Rob Sandfoss has a team-high four picks for 25 return yards.
Hayden Sphire said Collins and senior defensive lineman Trevor Wilson are very active on the defensive line. He also said the linebackers are good and the secondary is solid with Agree and junior defensive back Zion Mason. He also mentioned Sandfoss and senior defensive back Dallas Wirth.
Highlands leads the all-time series against the Colonels, 49-24. But CovCath has won the last seven meetings including two meetings last year. But the Bluebirds did break the scoreless drought in Park Hills that spanned over three games in the 38-21 loss at Covington Catholic in the second round of the playoffs.