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Thursday, November 4, 2021

Highlands Set for Playoff Rematch at Covington Catholic

Bluebirds Coming Off Bye Week

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior Kaleb Kissee (69) and senior linebacker Mason Welsch (10) converge on Cooper senior running back Brendon Tye in the recent win at Cooper.

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The word redemption takes on its own unique meaning for the Blue and White on Friday.

The Highlands Bluebirds football team (5-5 overall) travels to Park Hills at 7 p.m. to face the Covington Catholic Colonels (7-3) in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs hoping to not only erase the painful memories of the 8-7 loss at David Cecil Memorial Stadium just three weeks ago, but also snap the eight-game losing streak to the arch-rivals. 

The two meet in the first round of the playoffs for just the second time ever. The other time came exactly 39 years ago during the days when the top team in each sub-district qualified for the playoffs. Highlands beat CovCath, 13-7 in overtime in Fort Thomas on its way to the 1982 Class AAA state championship.

That 8-7 loss cost the Bluebirds a home playoff game in the first round. Highlands finished tied with Cooper and Conner for second in Class 5A, District 5 at 2-2 in district play and CovCath went 4-0 in district action in the regular season for the third straight year earning the top seed.

Highlands put itself in position to win the game Oct. 15 when junior kicker Davis Burleigh attempted a 30-yard field goal in the final minute of the game after the Bluebirds converted a huge 4th-and-10. But CovCath senior defensive Trevor Wilson came untouched to block the field goal.

The Ratings Percentage Index determined the playoff seeds because Highlands, Conner (6-4) and Cooper (7-3) went 1-1 against each other. RPI mixes in team records, records of opponents and records of opponents' opponents. Cooper won the second seed with a .57391 rating and Conner took third at .53619 with Highlands earning the fourth spot at .523. But Highlands Head Coach Bob Sphire pointed out the Bluebirds will have to beat those teams to advance to the third round of the playoffs regardless of the seeds.

"The bye week I think was good for us," Sphire said. "We had a chance to back up last week and kind of work on just ourselves not worrying about game plan. We weren't 100 percent sure we weren't going to be the three seed. We thought it was going to end up the way it ended up. But it was an opportunity for us to just kind of dial in on the things that we do in our system to get better at without worrying about an opponent on Friday night and give them a little bit of time off later in the week to heal up coming into this week."

Highlands enters the playoffs off a bye week. But to conclude the regular season, the Bluebirds earned their biggest win of the season in a 35-7 win at Cooper. They have outscored opponents, 267-181 including an 83-15 count in the last three games. The Bluebirds have averaged between 26 and 27 points per game and allowed just more than 18 per game.

"We felt like that was one of our best games all year," said Ivan Roller, Highlands senior defensive and offensive lineman. "We were super physical. We came out and I felt we had a great game plan and didn't make a lot of mental mistakes. If we come out like that playing for one another, I think it will turn out well for us."

Highlands found some things in its Spread offense in the win at Cooper. The Bluebirds put all three quarterbacks on the field at once in junior Charlie Noon and sophomores Brody Benke and Cam Bottom. Bottom made his first varsity start at quarterback and the staff lined Noon up at running back and Benke in the wide receiver rotation. Bottom completed 11-of-21 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns receiving solid protection from the Highlands offensive line. Noon rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns and caught a team-high three passes for 12 yards. Benke had two catches for 24 yards including a touchdown on a go route.

"The more we rep our stuff, the more comfortable the kids get,"
said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I've only been here since June so we've been running the system for five months. We're tweaking what pieces go where. We're real young outside at receiver so guys are starting to learn how to make plays and how to adjust to certain coverages."

The Bluebirds have put up 1,131 yards rushing and 1,945 passing for averages of just more than 113 rushing and between 194 and 195 passing. Noon is still the team's leading rusher with 658 yards on 114 carries and six touchdowns for an average of between five and six yards per carry. Noon also leads Highlands completing 86-of-148 passes for 1,307 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.

The Bluebirds have seen 18 different players haul in receptions. Senior Clayton Lloyd has the most catches with 23 for 286 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Carson Class has 320 yards receiving on 12 catches and five touchdowns.

But sophomore wide receiver Davis Hinegardner had two big catches for 66 yards in the win over Cooper. Hinegardner has 15 catches for 283 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Matteo Matteoli has also had big catches at times this year.

"We've made a lot of personnel changes with (senior wide receiver) Jake (Welch) getting hurt earlier in the season," Lloyd said. "All the sophomores came in and they really took (the offense) in quick. I remember struggling with that at the beginning. But once they all started buying in and realizing what we could do, it turned out well for us."

The Highlands 3-4 defense has done better penetrating the backfield and disrupting plays in recent weeks not allowing any team to score more than eight points in the final three games of the regular season. Teams have put up 1,564 yards rushing and 1,283 passing for averages of between 156 and 157 rushing and just more than 128 passing on the Bluebirds this year.

Senior defensive back Isaac Surrey leads Highlands with 48 tackles to go with one sack and six tackles for a loss. Junior linebacker Sam Robinson has 45 tackles including two sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Junior defensive back Adam Dunn has 43 tackles to go with one tackle for a loss. Senior defensive lineman Henry King has a team-high 11 tackles for a loss on 38 tackles and four sacks to go with two defensive touchdowns.

The Bluebirds have recovered seven fumbles and picked off seven passes this year. Robinson has two of each. Senior defensive back George King has one interception and one fumble recovery against Cooper.

Covington Catholic enters the game on a five-game winning streak. The blue Colonels have outscored opponents, 221-157 on the year for averages of just more than 22 to between 15 and 16 per game.

"(CovCath Head Coach) Eddie (Eviston) is a good ball coach and they're a good football program," Bob Sphire said. "Like a good high school program, they've adjusted to their situation with injuries and the talent that they have at certain positions. They have obviously become a heavy run team. But more importantly, they've become a really phenomenal defensive football team. They're getting people off the field and creating field position to kind of play into the game and style that they want to play to win close, low-scoring games."

The Colonels have put up 1,815 yards rushing and just 845 yards passing for averages of between 181 and 182 rushing and between 84 and 85 passing. Senior running back Reid Hummel continues to lead the Colonels with 616 yards rushing on 89 carries and two touchdowns for an average of just below seven yards per carry.

CovCath has consistently used three quarterbacks all season. Senior Adam Holtz leads the way completing 39-of-77 passes for 441 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions. Senior wide receiver John Lenihan has a team-high 18 catches for 193 yards and two touchdowns.

The CovCath 3-4 defense has allowed 1,362 yards rushing and 1,069 passing. The Colonels consistently try to disrupt teams up front with stunting. Junior linebacker Aiden Jones leads CovCath with 66 tackles with one for a loss and 1.5 sacks.

The Colonels have recovered eight fumbles and picked off nine passes this year. Senior defensive back Dallas Wirth has a team-high two fumble recoveries and senior defensive back Rob Sandfoss has four interceptions.

"The last time we played, I felt we were right there with them physically and I think it showed," Hayden Sphire said. "That's the type of game it typically is in this rivalry. It's a really physical game between two teams that frankly don't like each other very much. It's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage like most football games."

Special teams could again decide this game. Burleigh has made 34-of-35 point-after touchdown kicks and 1-of-3 field-goal tries. CovCath senior kicker Eli Nally has made 25-of-26 PATs and 6-of-10 field-goal tries.

Highlands still leads the all-time series against the Colonels, 49-24. Highlands last beat CovCath, 44-22 in the region title game in Fort Thomas on Nov. 20, 2015.

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