|G. Michael Graham. Highlands defenders Nathan Merkle (39) and Braden Hicks (9) pursue on defense in Friday's 28-13 win over Covington Catholic. The Bluebirds travel to Lexington Catholic on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. Class 4A semifinal contest.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Now that they’ve beaten their arch-rivals for the second time this year, many around Kentucky have basically anointed another state championship to the Highlands Bluebirds.
That is understandable considering the winner of the Covington Catholic Colonel-Highlands playoff game has finished as state champions or state runner-up 10 times since 1994 when Dale Mueller became Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. The Bluebirds hope to make it seven straight state championships overall and seven straight championships the same year following a playoff win over the Colonels. Highlands beat CovCath for the third straight year, 28-13 in the regional championship game in Fort Thomas on Friday.
“Like Coach Mueller said earlier (Monday), it’s sometimes hard to get going on to the next game after you play your arch-rival,” said Scott Turner, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “We have to do that and continue to do the things we’ve been doing all year. That includes staying aggressive.”
But 12-1 Highlands knows its next opponent will not just hand out a free pass to Bowling Green, especially on its home field. The Bluebirds head south to face the 10-3 Lexington Catholic Knights of District 5 on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the Class 4A state semifinals. The Bluebirds have beaten the Knights, 61-28 in Fort Thomas last year and 42-21 in Lexington two years ago both in the same round.
Highlands is 5-1 all-time against Lexington Catholic. The only loss to the Knights came 17-0 in the 2005 regional title game. That marked the last time Highlands has been shut out.
Both teams played tough schedules. The Bluebirds played three straight Saturday road games in September and won all three in addition to losing 30-27 at Cincinnati Elder in late October. They won 33-26 at John Hardin and 42-25 at Paducah Tilghman before smashing CovCath, 42-6. John Hardin is taking on Bowling Green again in the 5A semifinals on Friday and Tilghman is playing host to undefeated Wayne County in the 3A semifinals.
LexCath lost to Bowling Green (48-21) and Louisville St. Xavier (49-28) to open the season. Bowling Green carries the state’s longest winning streak at 42 in a row. The Knights then lost 22-13 at Boyle County on Oct. 4 in the District 5 championship game.
The Knights have won six straight since then. LexCath beat Mercer County, 49-14 in the region championship last week after Mercer County upset previously undefeated Boyle County, 31-30 the week before that. Lexington Catholic Head Coach Bill Letton pointed to a big reason for the struggles in those earlier games.
“All of those teams had much more experience than we did, especially along the lines of scrimmage,” Letton said. “Playing them forced our younger kids to compete at a higher level and jump on a fast learning curve.”
That could favor the experienced Bluebirds in the trenches. Highlands has experience all over the field. The offensive line has blocked well allowing the Bluebirds to put up averages of 52 points and 440.1 yards per game in their spread offense.
“Every play starts with the offensive line,” Mueller said. “If the offensive line plays well, the play goes well. If the line doesn’t play well, the play doesn’t go well. The whole game revolves around the offensive line. You see a quarterback completing a pass from the stands. But almost every time a quarterback completes a pass, the line is giving him so much protection and he has time to find the open receiver.”
Highlands quarterback Drew Houliston has completed 198-of-286 passes for 3,302 yards, 44 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Junior Jensen Feggins has been his favorite target with 44 receptions for 913 yards and 13 touchdowns. But 10 different Bluebirds have at least 11 catches.
Highlands senior running back Zach Harris gives teams fits running and catching the ball. He leads the team with 906 yards on 130 carries and 18 touchdowns and is tied with Ryan Greene with 29 catches for 463 yards and nine touchdowns. Greene has 413 yards receiving with four scores and junior Alex Veneman has 28 catches for 667 yards and nine touchdowns.
“All of our defenders realize that they will be isolated (and) tested at some point during the night so we try to keep each one focused on every play and hope that we can win our share of battles,” Letton said. “This team has been a really hard-working, dedicated group. They have looked at themselves critically and tried to correct all of their mistakes.”
Lexington Catholic could be without its top playmaker in its 4-2-5 defense in senior linebacker Josh Messmer. He leads the team with 120 tackles, but missed the Mercer County game because of injury so players like junior linebackers Chase Boling and Braxton Couch may need to step forward. Couch has 89 tackles with Boiling and Messer leading the team with three fumble recoveries each. Sophomore defensive back Davis Rowady leads LexCath with five interceptions. Lexington Catholic has allowed 277 points, 1,647 yards rushing and 1,997 passing this season.
Highlands will also face a spread offense out of its 3-4 defense. The Bluebirds allow averages of 20.3 points and 303.8 yards per contest. The Knights have garnered 525 points, 2,294 yards rushing and 3,184 yards passing this year.
Lexington Catholic is led by junior quarterback Reese Ryan. Ryan has completed 194-of-304 passes for 2,984 yards, 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“(Ryan) has a cannon for an arm. I remember preparing for him last year,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “We actually used a Junior League football for practice last year just so the (defensive backs) could get used to seeing the ball in the air that long and that far because we hadn’t played a quarterback that had the arm strength of him. He really is a challenge. He’s a frustrating quarterback to prepare for. You have to be careful with him because you’ll see a play on film where a team will get some pressure on him. But on the next play, you see the same type of play happen but he gets away and it is a 50-yard gain after a 10-yard loss. You have to pick what you want to do and when you want to do it.”
Senior David Bouvier and sophomore Sam Letton have been his top targets. Bouvier has 70 catches for 988 yards and eight touchdowns. Sam Letton has 41 for 850 yards and 13 scores. But the Highlands defenders face similarly talented players in practice all the time.
“I think it prepares us well because we know what we’re going up against,” said Bo Hebel, Highlands sophomore defensive lineman. “(Ryan) is good at moving around in the pocket. We have to keep him in front of us. You can’t rush too far upfield.”
Lexington Catholic’s running game has improved from last year. Senior Marcelis Logan has rushed for 769 yards and 15 touchdowns on 104 carries and senior Noah Mitchell has 602 yards on 103 carries with five scores.
The winner takes on either Collins (11-2) or Owensboro (10-3) in the state championship on Dec. 7 at Western Kentucky University at 3 p.m. Central Standard Time. Highlands beat Collins, 41-0 in last year’s 4A title game.