By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The new motto came about Nov. 30 last year.
The Highlands Bluebirds football team completed the “Race for Seis (Six)” with a state record sixth consecutive state championship, 47-0 over the Collins Titans at Western Kentucky University that night. It was not long after the returning players started talking about adding onto that record with a “Stairway to Seven” theme.
The Bluebirds earned that chance against the same team Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time back at Feix Field/Houchens Stadium at Western Kentucky University. Highlands (13-1) won its first four Class 4A playoff rematches from a year ago and must do it a fifth time against the fourth-year program from near Shelbyville.
The Bluebirds may be battling injuries. But that won’t stop them from laying everything on the line in what will be the final game for 31 seniors.
“I saw (Highland senior linebacker) Thomas (Wrobleski) running (Monday),” said Nick True, Highlands senior tight end. “He was not in pads. But he looked like he’s ready to go. We want to win state no matter what. There are guys who want to play even if they have broken arms.”
Highlands enters the game with an excellent 100-4 record since 2007. The Bluebirds have outscored the opposition by 1,144 points during their 34-game playoff winning streak. That’s an average of about 33.6 points per game.
The Titans (12-2) have won 45 of their first 56 games as a program splitting off from Shelby County in 2010. They’ve also been to at least the Class 4A regional title game in each of those four years.
Collins enters the game on a four-game winning streak. Collins’ two losses are to Simon Kenton (23-21) to open the season on Aug. 23 and at Central Hardin (36-32) on Oct. 11. Both made it the Class 6A regional finals.
The Bluebirds have been two-platooning both ways with their depth for years and could have that same advantage Saturday. Collins started that process after the loss to Simon Kenton.
“We had planned by midseason to platoon,” said Jerry Lucas, Collins Head Coach. “We have felt all along this is what we needed to do to grow our program. It wasn’t easy because we had several seniors who are outstanding on both sides of the ball.”
The Titans have outscored the opposition, 587-190. They’ve rushed for 2,469 yards and passed for 3,080. Defensively, they’ve allowed 1,952 yards rushing and 1,634 passing.
Collins returns the one-two senior punch of quarterback Lawson Page and Western Kentucky University commit wide receiver DeAndre Farris. Page has completed 198-of-316 passes for 3,036 passes, 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Farris has rushed for 643 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 61 passes for 982 yards and 16 scores.
But the duo has help. Ryan Watkins has rushed for 1,079 yards on 131 carries and 15 touchdowns. Wide Receiver Nathan Sames has complemented Farris with 55 catches for 930 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“They’re spreading the ball out really well,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “They’re getting very creative with getting the ball to (Farris). He is just a phenomenal football player. We have our work cut out to be honest.”
Highlands hopes to shore up its passing defense after allowing more than 300 yards in the semifinal win over Lexington Catholic. Griffin Urlage leads the Bluebirds with three interceptions and Jackson Bardo has two. Highlands has allowed 2,081 rushing and 2,315 passing defensively.
“We’re working on something to draw more attention to their skill guys like (Farris) so we don’t get beat deep like we did last week,” said Alex Shadle, Highlands senior defensive back. “You just practice knowing how the routes look. We learn that by looking at film.”
Highlands put a lot of pressure on Page last year. Senior defensive lineman and Cornell University commit Seth Hope sacked Page five times in that game.
Collins runs a 4-3 base defense. Senior linebacker Masai Whyte leads the Titans with 178 tackles.
“They’ve had some juniors step up and they’re playing good football,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “They adjust well in games. They’ll put different guys in different spots depending on what you’re doing and they’ll move guys around. It’s been really effective for them. I didn’t really expect them to be as good as they are. When we looked at the film Saturday, we said, ‘Son of a gun. This is a good football team.”
Highlands has passed for 4,547 yards and rushed for 1,634 led by senior quarterback Drew Houliston and running back Zach Harris. Houliston has completed 212-of-304 passes for 3,660 yards, 48 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He is five touchdown passes short of Gino Guidugli’s record of 53 touchdown passes set in 2000. Houliston, Beau Hoge and Austin Hergott have combined to throw a school-record 60 touchdown passes.
Harris has rushed for exactly 1,000 yards on 140 carries and 21 touchdowns. He’s also caught 29 passes for 466 yards and nine touchdowns.
The offensive line has protected well all season. Highlands has been especially lethal throwing deep passes. Junior wide receivers Jensen Feggins and Alex Veneman have caught 48 and 31 passes for 1,040 and 817 yards respectively. Feggins has 15 touchdowns catches and Veneman 10.
“They run the ball just as well as they pass the ball,” Lucas said. “You are going to have to prepare to try to slow down both if you are going to have a shot to win the game.”
Highlands would capture the state record of 23 titles all to itself with a win Saturday. The Bluebirds are still tied with Louisville Trinity for that record of 22 titles each. But the Shamrocks lost in the 6A regional finals this year.