By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Highlands Bluebirds Head Football Coach/Offensive Coordinator Dale Mueller jokingly blamed it on the day after Halloween.
It only made sense after the Highlands Bluebirds won Friday’s season finale, 71-69 over the Warren Central Dragons at Cecil Memorial Stadium. They concluded the regular season at 9-1 in the first-ever meeting against 5-5 Warren Central.
“It was one big play after another,” Mueller said. “Halloween was somewhat rainy (Thursday) so it just crept into (Friday). I don’t think that was all. I think there was evil spirits mingling around. I think there were Voo-Doo hexes happening out there. It was a wild, crazy night.”
The Bluebirds still improved to 96-4 since the start of 2007. That includes hitting the 70-point barrier for the ninth time, including three this year. That equals the total of the 2011 undefeated state championship team. That team put up 70 points in wins over Mason County, Pendleton County and Covington Holmes.
Highlands normally blow teams out when it scores in the 60s, let alone the 70s. But the Bluebirds needed every inch of their 25 first downs, 626 yards of total offense, 10 touchdowns, and field goal.
The banged-up Highlands 4-3 defense yielded a state record 918 yards of offense including 716 on the ground to the Warren Central Wing-T attack and 14 first downs. Former high school Cawood (now part of Harlan County High) held the previous mark of 864 yards against Bell County. The most points Highlands has ever given up was 77 in a shutout loss to Covington Holmes way back in 1920.
Mueller said he could not recall a game where a team had more than 700 yards of total offense, let alone 918. The Bluebirds put up 600-plus yards in a contest three times last year.
The Highlands school record for the most yards in a game is 707 set on Nov. 11, 2011 in a 61-13 thrashing of Dixie Heights. The most points the Bluebirds have ever scored in a game is 88 back on Sept. 4, 1998 in a win over Campbell County.
Highlands played without several key defenders including three starters in the secondary. Senior linebacker Thomas Wrobleski and junior defensive backs Andrew Abner and Griffin Urlage did not play. Abner and Urlage said they hope to be back soon. Also, senior defensive back Jackson Bardo played sparingly.
Junior Beau Hoge started at quarterback in place of injured senior Drew Houliston and made the most of it. He completed 19-of-31 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns.
“Beau played so well,” Mueller said. “His first four passes were all touchdowns. He had some great scrambles and could have had even more (offensive yards). He just played a great game.”
Senior Zach Harris led Highlands in both rushing and receiving. He had 21 carries for 142 yards and two touchdowns and had five catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. Harris and Jaylen Hayes made a lot of crucial runs.
“In all honesty, I think (this game) prepared us more for (close games in the playoffs),” Hayes said. “Our defense was really hurt. This was an offensive game. We prepared by pounding the ball like we were (Friday).”
Alex Veneman and Jensen Feggins also had big games for Highlands. Veneman had four catches for 112 yards and Feggins tallied two catches for 86 yards and two scores.
“We knew we were going to have to put up big numbers,” Hoge said. “Obviously, we weren’t expecting that kind of shootout, but it’s always fun when you get to stay in the whole game. We did our job and felt pretty good about it.”
The Dragons saw four players rush for at least 96 yards. Senior quarterback Chris Porter-Bunton ran the ball 14 times for 212 yards and four touchdowns often faking the dive then going outside for huge gains. He also completed 5-of-10 passes for 202 yards and two scores.
“We thought they were going to be more of a run team because in the previous games, (Porter-Bunton) only passed a couple times,” said Joey Kruse, Highlands senior linebacker. “But he really showed he can pass and get out of the pocket and sprint downfield pretty fast. We should have kept the score further apart. But it was a close one for sure.”
Damani Walker, Rondell Green and Robert Edwards also put up big numbers for Warren Central. Green had nine carries for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Walker added 168 yards on six carries with a touchdown and an 88-yard touchdown reception with Edward gaining 96 yards on seven carries and an 80-yard touchdown catch.
The Bluebirds jumped out to a quick 27-0 lead with 6:50 left in the first quarter. Hoge hit Feggins for 40 and 46-yard scores before hitting Harris for a 19-yard touchdown and Veneman for a 41-yard score.
The teams traded scores in the final 4:38 of the quarter. Porter-Bunton scored from three yards out and Evan Allen scored on an 18-yard end-around. The Bluebirds led 34-7 after the first quarter.
Highlands looked to put the game away in the second quarter when Ryan Greene scored from two yards out to give the Bluebirds a 41-7 lead. But following a Porter-Bunton 1-yard score, Brandon Hergott returned the onside kick back 47 yards for a score to make it 48-14 Highlands.
Warren Central trimmed the margin to 20 points with 3:20 left in the second. Walker had his 88-yard catch and Edwards hauled in the 80-yard score.
But Hayes returned the ensuing kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown. That gave Highlands a 55-28 halftime lead.
Things got closer in the third quarter. Harris responded to a Walker 9-yard run with a 1-yard score. Highlands led 62-35 at that point with 8:56 left in the third quarter.
The Dragons cut the lead to 62-49 with 3:32 left in the third on two quick scores. Green had an 80-yard run and Porter-Bunton scored from 29 yards out.
But Harris answered that score with another 1-yard plunge out of the Highlands full-house backfield. Highlands led 68-49 entering the third quarter.
Green started the fourth quarter with a 60-yard score with 11:26 left to cut the Bluebird lead to 68-56. But Highlands drove down the field and Jared Dougherty hit a 21-yard field goal with 8:07 left in the quarter to put Highlands up 71-56.
Highlands drove the length of the field again. But Warren Central stopped the Bluebirds on fourth down on their 5-yard line.
Porter-Bunton then scored again on virtually the same play. He faked up the middle then ran outside for a 43-yard score. The Dragons trailed by the final score at that point with 2:05 left in the game.
They tried an onside kick but it went out of bounds. Harris then bulldozed his way for a first down to end the game.
Highlands takes on 1-9 Boyd County to open the Class 4A playoffs next week. Game time is 7:30 p.m.