By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The fact may not be too relevant to the current players and coaches.
But it still remains. The Highlands Bluebirds football team has not lost to the Ashland Blazer Tomcats since 1954. That happens to be the year that Highlands Head Coach Dale Mueller was born.
While that may not be a mental advantage, the recent Blue and White domination of Kentucky teams may be. Highlands leads the overall series 19-5-1 including a 52-13 decision in Fort Thomas in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
The Bluebirds have beaten the Tomcats twice during their state record run of 31 consecutive playoff wins and have gone 97-4 since the start of 2007. They also beat Ashland, 53-6 in the second round of the playoffs in the same location in 2008 and have outscored those 31 opponents by 1,065 points for an average of just more than 34 points game.
But the Bluebirds have to prove they are the better team again Friday. The game starts at 7:30 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
“They prepare so hard,” Mueller said. “The games mean a lot to them. They’re doing everything they can to help the team win. I’m really proud of how hard they try and prepare for games then play on game day.”
Like last year, 10-1 Highlands fields the deeper team with nearly 100 players and no one going both directions. The 8-3 Tomcats have 77 players listed on their roster on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association web site with players going both directions.
The Tomcats enter the contest off a 49-20 win over Covington Holmes to open the playoffs. They won six in a row after starting the year at 1-2 including a 37-26 season-opening defeat to defending 2A champion Newport Central Catholic. Undefeated Johnson Central ended the Ashland winning streak with a 42-7 win in Ashland on Oct. 25.
“I am most impressed by the way our players have overcome the injury adversity throughout the season,” said Tony Love, first-year Ashland Head Coach. “At one point, we had 12 starters or projected starters out – some for the rest of the season.”
Sophomore Quentin Baker leads the Ashland Diamond-formation offense. He ran for 111 yards on 14 carries against Holmes before leaving with a sprained ankle. Baker has 1,604 yards rushing on 185 carries and 17 touchdowns.
But the Tomcats saw other players step in. James Queen, Josh Vaughn and Tyler Sutton ran for scores in addition to sophomore Jake Long. That marked Long’s first score as a Tomcat. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association recently declared Long eligible after transferring across the Ohio River from Ironton (Ohio).
“They run the option,” said Michael Ayers, Highlands senior linebacker. “It’s a tricky offense. But through the hard work we’ve been putting in all summer, we should be fine.”
The Highlands 4-3 defense has been shaky at times this year giving up an average of 22.3 points and 335.8 yards a game. But the Bluebirds have still recorded 50 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, 12 interceptions and recovered 14 fumbles. That equates to a plus-15 takeaway/giveaway ratio.
“We just have to do the techniques we’ve been doing all year,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “We have keys when we get certain blocks. We’re not going to do anything different necessarily. If you start getting too crazy, they start thinking too much.”
Senior Seth Hope leads Highlands with nine tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Griffin Urlage and Jackson Bardo lead the Bluebirds with two interceptions each and Joey Kruse owns a team-high two fumble recoveries.
Defensively, Ashland plays a 4-4 defense. The Tomcats have outscored the opposition, 327-238. But in their three losses, opponents have outscored them 114-47.
Highlands lights up scoreboards like crazy on a yearly basis. But the Bluebirds led by their vaunted Spread offense has really been in high gear lately having scored 70-plus points against its last four Kentucky opponents. They’ve scored 592 points on the year and gained 4,912 yards of total offense for averages of 53.8 points and 446.5 yards a contest. Love said the Tomcats do not see many offenses like that in eastern Kentucky.
Highlands senior quarterback Drew Houliston has completed 168-of-244 passes for 2,868 yards, 39 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Ten different Highlands receivers have at least 10 catches and 155 yards receiving on the year led by junior Jensen Feggins with 39 catches for 836 yards and 12 scores.
“We take the most pride out of anything on our team in being the team that goes over the top more so than any team in northern Kentucky,” said Brandon Hergott, Highlands senior wide receiver. “That’s a big part of why our running game is so successful.”
Highlands senior running back Zach Harris leads the team in rushing and is second in receiving. Harris has 712 yards rushing on 100 attempts and 16 touchdowns in addition to 28 catches for 462 yards and nine touchdowns. He rested in Friday’s 70-6 win over Boyd County.
Kruse has returned an interception and fumble recovery for a touchdown. The Bluebirds have four defensive touchdowns after only recording one last year.
A win would put the Bluebirds in the region title game for the 12th time in 13 years. The winner takes on either undefeated 11-0 Johnson Central or 9-2 Covington Catholic.