|Bluebirds Take Advantage of Field Position on Boone County's New Turf|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior defensive back Isaac Surrey (18) scores in the second half against Boone County on Friday.|
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One team would leave Owen Hauck Stadium with that crucial first Class 5A, District 5 victory of the season Friday.
The visiting Highlands Bluebirds and host Boone County Rebels came into the game 3-4 overall. But Highlands found itself 0-1 in district play after losing 27-13 to Conner in Fort Thomas last week and on a four-game losing streak.
Boone County has its most wins in a season since 2011. But the Rebels found themselves 0-2 in district play continuing to struggle in the current format at 0-10 during that time.
Unlike previous weeks, Highlands won the battle in the trenches, especially defensively and on special teams on its way to a 41-0 shutout over the Rebels. Boone County installed turf in the offseason. This marked the first shutout of the season for the Bluebirds.
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It did not rain heavily Friday. But the Bluebirds still did not have to prepare for footing on grass like previous trips to Florence.
The Bluebirds led 14-0 at halftime and put the game almost out of reach in the third quarter when sophomore defensive back Nate Welch and senior nose guard Henry King blocked Boone County punts. The second half showed signs of Highlands past.
"I thought it was nice to come out of halftime with the lead and right off the bat take control of the game in that third quarter," said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "Anytime you score on special teams, that's an extra added bonus. I thought we really tackled better. When you play well on defense and you make plays on special teams, that kind of changes the game. The offense doesn't really get a lot of rhythm when you do that. But playing the young quarterbacks like we had to is still part of the process."
The Bluebirds scored 13 points off those plays. King recovered the first blocked punt and scored from five yards out giving the Bluebirds a 20-0 advantage with 9:13 left in the third quarter. That marked King's first-ever varsity touchdown.
"I went as hard as I could as we should," King said. "I feel like we make up (small) size with quickness. That's how we win games. Our pursuit was really, really important getting everybody to the ball."
Following King's blocked punt, Highlands junior kicker Davis Burleigh set up for a 27-yard field goal. But junior holder Ryan DeBurger took the snap and threw to an open senior Jackson Higgason for a 10-yard touchdown putting the Bluebirds up 27-0 with 5:30 left in the third quarter. The Bluebirds made 6-of-7 point-after touchdown tries.
The Highlands 3-4 defense held Boone County to 186 yards of total offense on 54 plays including just 48 yards on the ground for an average of between three to four yards per play. The Rebels had eight first downs.
The Rebels mainly lined up in a Spread offense often with junior quarterback Richard West and two running backs in the backfield including their leading rusher in junior Jeremiah Williams. But the Bluebirds put pressure on them in the backfield and cut off many of the desired rushing angles.
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"Our defensive line and our linebackers knew their blitzes and they knew their plays and assignments," said Dawson Gauspohl, Highlands senior linebacker. "They knew who to guard and who to tackle. They were just the better team. It showed how hard we worked over the summer and over the winter."
The Bluebirds put up 237 yards offensively with seven first downs on 43 plays for an average of between five and six yards per play. Highlands junior quarterback Charlie Noon dressed, but did not play. Sophomore quarterbacks Brody Benke and Cam Bottom took the snaps Friday.
"It was some sloppy football," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I thought (Benke and Bottom) both did some good things. I felt like we left 150-200 yards (passing) on the field. We missed some throws that I thought were going to be big plays. But it was good to see our defense and special teams step up."
Highlands won the turnover battle 3-0. Junior linebacker Sam Robinson had his second fumble recovery of the season and junior defensive lineman TreVaughn Woods had his first. Highlands junior defensive back Adam Dunn recorded his first interception of the season. Robinson leads the Bluebirds with two fumble recoveries and two interceptions this year.
"We came out and dominated. But we didn't play to our full potential still," said Eli LaFrange, Highlands senior linebacker, who wore number 53 this game unlike the usual 21 and wore number 64 last week. "We realize there's still a lot more work to do. We needed a big win."
Things turned ugly in terms of penalties on Boone County in the second half when Highlands enforced the running clock in the fourth quarter. The Rebels finished with 198 yards in penalties on 15 flags including a number of unsportsmanlike foul penalties. Boone County received two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on one play late in the third quarter leading to Surrey's blocked punt.
"I thought our guys were extremely disciplined in a situation where they were trying to get baited into retaliating," Bob Sphire said. "It's disappointing (Boone County) had that many personal fouls. I thought the officials actually did a really, really good job. They called what they had to call. They were on top of it. There's no more they could do than that. They called every one that they could call and I'm really proud of our guys for not retaliating and just playing football."
Highlands did not move the ball on its first offensive possession. But the Bluebirds received the ball at the Boone County 32 after the Rebels did not convert a fourth down run on a fake punt. After sophomore wide receiver Davis Hinegardner drew a horse collar penalty putting the ball at the Boone County 12 on the second possession, Highlands sophomore wide receiver Carson Class outjumped his defender for a 12-yard touchdown pass from Benke with 4:07 left in the first quarter.
"It really shows that even with the injuries that we've had that we can still perform to out standard of football," Class said. "It shows that we have depth at our receivers and at quarterback with Brody stepping up like that against Bowling Green (in the 21-18 season-opening win) and Boone County. We're really showing signs of life when we need to."
The Bluebirds made the most of Dunn's interception in the second quarter. On a 4th-and-7 from the Boone County 27, Hinegardner hauled in a 27-yard touchdown from Benke putting Highlands up 14-0 with 6:24 left in the first half.
Highlands extended its lead to 34-0 with 2:19 left in the third quarter. Robinson ran around the left side for the score. Surrey caught the game's final touchdown making the final score.
"We did take care of the ball," Hayden Sphire said. "When we've taken care of the ball, we've been in games and really taken control of them. When we haven't taken care of the ball, we've been playing from behind. We can compete with anybody. But a lot of it comes down to execution and getting better at what we do."
Highlands junior running back Max Schultz appeared to score in the game's final minute. But the refs did not signal touchdown.
"Most of the guys we're playing are young guys anyway," Bob Sphire said. "We have a bunch of young guys who are going to play (junior varsity Saturday) morning. So within a whole 24-hour span, we're going to have a bunch of guys play a lot of football. That's how you just keep getting better."
The Bluebirds welcome arch-rival Covington Catholic (4-3) to Fort Thomas on Friday in the final home game of the season at 7 p.m. The Colonels had their bye week Friday.