By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Imagine being the fastest dog on the planet.
You train like crazy all year to stay at the top.
Now imagine many other dogs also wanting to take your title away from you. No matter what they do, they can’t beat you.
That happens to be the position of the Highlands Bluebirds football team and the other 31 teams in Class 4A. Highlands has won six consecutive state championships, including the last two in 4A.
The only difference between the last two years and this year is there were 33 teams chasing Highlands the previous two years. Former District 1 team Lone Oak near Paducah merged with Heath and Reidland to form Class 6A, District 1 McCracken County and former Highlands District 7 rival Pendleton County dropped out of district play for this year and next year.
Entering the regional finals, only seven teams have a chance to knock off the Bluebirds. They are Covington Catholic, Lexington Catholic, Mercer County, North Oldham, Collins, Owensboro and Franklin-Simpson. Highlands has played every team at some point in history except Mercer County and North Oldham.
Highlands happens to be playing host to the most familiar of all of them in the Covington Catholic Colonels on Friday at 7 p.m. in yet another rematch. The Bluebirds have beaten their arch-rivals from Park Hills more than anyone during their 98-4 run since 2007. They’ve won 10 straight in the series to move to 44-17 in the all-time series, including 25-6 since Dale Mueller became the Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator in 1994. Some people say it is not a rivalry because of the recent Bluebird domination.
“I’m not sure who ‘some people’ are, but I have never met them,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “This is THE RIVALRY. Those ‘some people’ have never been to our youth camp in the summer when we have a couple hundred campers chanting, ‘Beat Colonels.’ It is what makes high school football so great. I am really excited to be a part of this game.”
But none of that will again matter in this game that will be the final home game for 31 Highlands seniors. They are looking to do what the previous two senior classes and the senior classes in 2007, 2004, 2000, 1998 and 1995 did. That’s beat the Colonels twice on their way to a state championship. Highlands handled the banged-up Colonels, 42-6 on Sept. 28 in Park Hills.
Despite the recent history, Highlands always marks this game on the calendar CovCath has been the team most likely to prevent the Bluebirds from a state championship over the years. CovCath eliminated Highlands in the second round of the playoffs in 1994, 2001 and 2006 and in the regional championship game in 1997. The Bluebirds won the regular-season meetings against the Colonels in 1997 and 2001.
Both teams run Spread offenses. Highlands averages 54 points and 443.8 yards per contest behind solid line play. That’s something the Bluebirds want to continue against a CovCath defense that has allowed an average of about 15 points and 275 yards per contest. In their two losses, Moeller and Highlands scored in the 40s against them.
“They are a good defense that can play both the run and the pass,” Mueller said. “To be able to compete with a defense like that, you have to be able to do a lot of things on offense. That’s really our focus all year long.”
Adam Fischer leads CovCath with 63 tackles and Matthew Way has picked off seven passes. The Colonels recently saw linebacker Sam Burchell return to the lineup where he has 43 tackles.
Senior quarterback Drew Houliston has competed 181-of-260 passes for 3,111 yards, 44 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Gino Guidugli holds the team record with 53 touchdown passes set in 2000.
The team has thrown 56 touchdowns and needs four more to surpass the school record of 59 set by Highlands in 2000. The state record for the most touchdowns in a season is 92 set by Lone Oak in 2007.
Eighteen different receivers have caught passes for the Bluebirds. Junior Jensen Feggins leads the way with 42 receptions for 896 yards and 13 touchdowns and Zach Harris is second with 28 catches for 462 yards and nine scores. Harris also leads the team rushing with 100 attempts for 712 yards and 16 touchdowns despite resting the first two playoff games.
The Highlands defense hopes to continue to pick things up after allowing just 12 points in the playoff wins against Boyd County and Ashland. The Bluebirds have allowed averages of 20.9 points and 311 yards per game.
“We have continued to improve each day at everything we do, whether it is in the weight room, film room, getting faster and getting quicker,” Weinrich said. “We have worked really hard since our last meeting with the Colonels to improve on our performance. We have had to battle through many injuries this season so far, but we haven’t complained about it and tried to make the most of the situation. Other guys have gained invaluable experience, but we hope we will be close to full strength this time around.”
The Colonels average 31 points and 383 yards per contest. CovCath’s spread offense is led by sophomore Ben Dressman. He has completed 123-of-206 passes for 1,730 yards and 19 touchdowns and run for 807 yards and eight touchdowns on 138 attempts for a total of 2,537 yards and 27 scores.
“We’re much more confident,” said Dave Wirth, CovCath Head Coach. “We’re still beat up, but much better than we were in week five. Ben is a great athlete and fierce competitor who just needed varsity reps – lots of them. Now he has them and he is one of the most explosive players in the state of Kentucky.”
Senior Sam Dressman leads CovCath with 31 catches for 374 yards, but Wirth listed him as questionable for Friday’s game. Sam Hatter follows with 25 catches for 285 yards and five touchdowns.
“The important thing is watching your position,” said Andrew Abner, Highlands junior defensive back. “Whatever move they make, you have to follow right behind them. We have a couple calls we make to adjust, but you have to stay over top (of opposing wide receivers).”
The Colonels have benefitted from the return of several injured players including senior running back Luke Bir and junior quarterback Adam Wagner. Bir rushed for 191 yards and Ben Dressman 181 in CovCath’s 42-14 second-round win at Johnson Central. The Colonels only passed the ball nine times in the victory.
The Highlands 4-3 defense has even scored more points than it has allowed returning two fumbles and an interception for touchdowns for 18 points. The Bluebirds have five defensive touchdowns on the season. Senior linebacker Joey Kruse leads the way with three. He has a team-high three fumbles for 44 in return yards and fellow junior linebacker Rocco Pangallo is second with two fumble recoveries.
The Bluebirds have 60 tackles for a loss for 155 yards, 11 sacks, 12 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries defensively. Senior defensive lineman Seth Hope leads Highlands with 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. Defensive backs Jackson Bardo and Griffin Urlage lead Highlands with two interceptions each.
The Bluebirds held the Colonels in check during the regular-season meeting. But CovCath played without starting quarterback Adam Wagner and wide receiver Evan Braun. Senior Sam Dressman had six catches for 115 yards and a touchdown in the regular season meeting, but Wirth listed him as questionable for the game.
“Our offense is radically different than it was the last time we played,” Wirth said. “I doubt we will break the state record and get 600 rushing yards or 900-plus total yards like Warren Central, but we should be fine.”
The winner travels south for the state semifinals the day after Thanksgiving. That will be to either Lexington Catholic or Mercer County.