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Friday, October 1, 2021

Highlands Football Set for District Opener against Conner

Bluebirds Hope to Start Games Faster

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior running back Sam Robinson goes to the ground after a long pass reception against Dixie Heights.

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When told of this quote, Highlands Bluebirds football Head Coach Bob Sphire said it is a good one.

"There is a way to go about winning. It doesn't happen overnight. You need to learn it. You need to embrace it. You need to love the process. Eventually that process will love you back."

That is what third-year Bowling Green State University Falcons (Ohio) Head Coach Scot Loeffler told former Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune Sports Editor Jack Carle following an 0-5 2020 Coronavirus 2019-shortened season. Loeffler served as the Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach to Highlands legendary quarterback Patrick Towles in Towles' lone season at Boston College in 2016. 

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The Football Championship Subdivision Falcons of the Mid-American Conference saw that philosophy pay off Saturday. They upset the host Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big 10 Conference and former Ryle quarterback Tanner Morgan, 14-10 to move to 2-2 on the season.

Standing at 3-3 on the season, the Bluebirds have seen progress in the march as one back toward the level of dominance seen in the past including a 21-18 win over the Class 5A defending state champion Bowling Green Purples (3-3) to open the season. They hope to take more steps this week leading into the Class 5A, District 5 opener against the Conner Cougars (4-2) at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m.

In recent years, the Bluebirds have not necessarily forgotten the process of winning on the whole. But Sphire said the team has fallen behind opponents in certain areas such as the weight room. That has been evident in the last two games in losses to Ryle (27-13) and Dixie Heights (28-21). Sphire said Dixie Heights used its size to build a 21-7 lead before the Bluebirds saw their solid conditioning help them come back and tie the game at 21. 

Highlands has been in all six games outscoring opponents, 171-145 for averages of 28.5 to just more than 24 points per game. But the Bluebirds have not been able to come through during the three-game losing streak that started with a tight 27-21 loss at Cincinnati McNicholas. But many believe this team can have a special season despite certain challenges.

"We had really good workouts Saturday morning. We had energy in the weight room," Sphire said. "We had a really good video session. We have continued to stay brutally honest. I was extremely upset with myself. I have to do a better job preparing them for key situations like we've had. We haven't performed as well in key situations down the stretch like we did against Bowling Green early in the year. I have to make sure we're dialed in on attention to details because there's x's and o's and there's schemes and there's just general football that you coach up to be competitive. But there's going to the next level to be able to execute at a high level in key situations at the most stressful times and when you play a tough schedule, for an average team it comes out 50-50. You win some of them. You lose some of them. We don't want to be an average football team."

The Bluebirds welcome in a Conner team that opened district action with a 34-7 win over Boone County. The Cougars have outscored opponents, 168-111 for averages of 28 to 18.5 per game. It will be a battle of similar philosophies. Both teams run Spread offenses and 3-4 defenses. Sphire also said the teams mirror each other in terms of roster depth.

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The record of the six Highlands opponents is 18-15 compared to 15-18 for Conner. The Cougars opened the season with a 35-12 win over a winless Lexington Lafayette Generals team (0-6) that has scored just 31 points this season.

"These kids fight their tails off and they know they're right there with their competition," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It's not like we've been getting blown out of the water. Building up a successful program back is learning how to win those games again. It's good experience for us. We've gotten closer each week. Last week was frustrating because the kids played their tails off. It was a one play makes a difference type of game. You have to be the team that does make that one play."

The teams have three common opponents from Class 6A, District 6. Conner has also gone 1-2 against that district having also beaten the Campbell County Camels (38-7) and also lost to Ryle (40-7) and Dixie Heights (42-26). The Bluebirds beat the Camels, 45-7 at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Sept. 3.

The Bluebirds have displayed consistency in the passing game offensively with 1,458 yards passing for an average of 243 per game. That has surpassed last year's total of 1,032 yards passing. Junior quarterback Charlie Noon has completed 73-of-120 passes for 1,201 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.

But they are still trying to find a consistent running game outside of Noon. Highlands has 713 yards rushing on 175 carries for an average of just under 119 per game and just more than four per carry.

The Bluebirds put up just 14 yards rushing against Dixie Heights. But Hayden Sphire said that was by design. Noon has carried the ball 71 times for 405 yards and three touchdowns for an average of between five and six yards per touch. No one else has more than 77 yards rushing on the season.

"Going into the Dixie game, I thought our game plan was going to have to lean toward the pass," Hayden Sphire said. "Dixie loaded the box. They were going to ensure that we did run the ball. Throughout the game, we kind of went away from it because we were having so much success through the air. Young guys were stepping up making plays. It wasn't that we were terrible running the ball. It just wasn't part of the game plan. But moving forward, we're starting to build that depth back, starting to get healthy. Developing that run game as we move forward in district play and hopefully the playoffs is going to be a big key."

The Highlands passing game did recently take a hit with senior wide receiver Jake Welch out for the season. Welch has 19 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns.

But others have stepped forward. Senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd has 12 catches for 217 yards and five touchdowns and sophomore wide receiver Carson Class has five for 201 and three touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Mateo Matteoli has recently picked things up with seven catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. Sixteen different Bluebirds have catches this year.

"I think we're all working hard and have good attitudes about it," said Jack Hendrix, Highlands junior wide receiver/defensive back. "No matter the outcome of the Friday night game, we all get back to it the next morning or if someone plays (the junior varsity game), they don't hang their head. They find ways to get better."

The Highlands defense has allowed 1,058 rushing and 1,014 passing for averages of just more than 176 rushing and an even 169 passing. The Bluebirds have made adjustments defensively during the game to keep the team in games. But the Bluebirds have not recorded any takeaways during the losing streak. They have four interceptions and two fumble recoveries on the season.

"They (coaches) say 90 percent of it is mental," said Aiden Nevels, Highlands junior defensive back. "You just have to prepare yourself every week. They say practice how you'll play. You have to put yourself in game time mindset in practice so you'll be ready Friday."

Highlands junior defensive back Adam Dunn leads the Bluebirds with 33 tackles including one for a loss. Junior linebacker Sam Robinson has 32 tackles including two quarterback sacks to go with two interceptions. Senior defensive back Isaac Surrey is third with 31 tackles including four for a loss. Highlands junior defensive lineman TreVaughn Woods has 22 tackles including four for a loss.

The Conner offense leans more toward the run. The Cougars have rushed for 1,155 yards and passed for 524 for averages of 165 rushing and just under 75 passing per game. Senior second-year starting quarterback Alex Castrucci and junior wide receiver Alijah Thompson lead the way there. Thompson led the Cougars in receiving last year.

"We've struggled against running quarterbacks and (Castrucci) is a really good runner," Bob Sphire said. "That's what they want to do and he is probably their most dangerous threat. They took a skilled receiver from last year and moved him to running back. (Thompson) is a speedy kid. They want to throw it to keep you off-balance. They'll throw it if they have to in key situations. But they prefer to beat you running the football."

Thompson has 93 carries for 618 yards and 11 touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards per carry and seven catches for 48 yards. Castrucci has 460 yards on 65 rushes and eight touchdowns averaging just more than seven yards per carry. Senior wide receiver Cody Crawford leads Conner with 13 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown.

The Cougars have allowed 838 yards rushing and 827 passing for averages of just under 140 rushing and just under 138 passing. Dixie Heights used its huge offensive line to put up 323 yards rushing. Ryle put up a balanced 144 rushing and 193 passing. Hayden Sphire said Highlands is preparing for three and four-man fronts if Conner jumps into it like the game against Dixie Heights.

"I think they're extremely well-coached," Hayden Sphire said. "Their secondary does not let anything over top of them. Their two linebackers are extremely good tacklers. Their d-line is really aggressive. That's the one thing that stands out to be on film. Nobody is out of place. Nobody is busting assignments."

Conner has recorded 17 tackles for a loss and 11 quarterback sacks on the season. Senior linebacker Carter Lindemann leads the way with 37 tackles including two for a loss and two sacks.

The Cougars have seven fumble recoveries and five interceptions. Thompson and senior defensive back Frankie Salzarulo have two fumble recoveries each.

Special teams could also go a long way in this game. Highlands junior kicker Davis Burleigh has connected on all 22 point-after touchdown tries and 1-of-2 field goal attempts. Senior kicker Nicholas Keller has made 21-of-23 PATs and 1-of-5 field goal tries.

The Bluebirds are 23-4 all-time against the Cougars. Highlands beat Conner twice last year including the first round of the Class 5A playoffs after the Cougars did the same to the Bluebirds in 2019.

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