Erasing Huge Halftime Deficit, Highlands Captures 23rd State Football Title
By the end of the first half it didn't look possible, but Highlands is bringing the state football title back to Fort Thomas.
Down 42-21 at the half, the Bluebirds caught fire in the game's second half and downed Owensboro by a score of 49-42.
It is the 23rd championship for Highlands.
The game started out with a surprise as Highlands kicked an onside kick on the opening kick off. They recovered and swiftly moved down to the one-yard line on a effective screens to the receivers in the flats, and capped the drive off with a Beau Hoge run into the endzone. That score put the Bluebirds up 7-0, but their lead would not last.
Once Owensboro got the ball, they showed off a powerful run game built around the option, exemplified by a 47-yard run by quarterback Nick Locher on a keeper in the triple option.
Highlands did not respond well and were sidetracked by a holding penalty and dropped pass by Alex Venamen. These setbacks made the Bluebirds punt, which was shanked and allowed the Red Devils to take over with excellent field position.
They capatilized with an 8-yard run by Anthony James, that gave Owensboro the lead that they would keep for the rest of the game.
When Highlands got the ball back, Hoge rolled out to his right and made a bad decision on the pass as he threw back to the middle of the field where the ball was tipped and intercepted. Owensboro immediately went to the jugular with a 37-yard strike to Rodney Collier in the endzone. To make matters worse, there was a facemask penalty called on the Bluebirds that would lead to even more problems for Highlands.
Up 21-7 and kicking off on a short field, Owensboro figured they might as well roll the dice on an onside kick of their own which they executed perfectly and recovered. A few plays later, the Red Devils found the endzone again on a 14-yard scramble by Anthony James for his second touchdown of the game. It appeared at that point that the Bluebirds were in trouble, but there was still a lot of football to be played.
Highlands settled down some on offense in the second quarter as Beau Hoge led his team on a drive where he carried the ball five times for 29 yards, including a one-yard touchdown run on a roll out keeper on fourth down, but it looked like Hoge hurt his shoulder on the play as he kept it motionless when he ran back to he sideline.
Once they were back on defense, Highlands hurt themselves with a 15-yard personal foul call that gave Owensboro enough momentum to get reach the Bluebird side of the field and eventually score again on a 24-yard pass to Jahlil Barrett who caught the pass on a crossing pattern, broke a tackle and worked his way down the sideline for the score.
Suddenly the Bluebirds faced a 35-14 first half deficit with their quarterback hurting. Hoge proved he felt well enough on their next possession as he found wide receiver Mitchell Cain on a nice pass into the endzone. The quick strike pass was exactly what Highlands needed to stay in the game.
The problems for the Highlands defense continued however, as Owensboro was able to get into the endzone yet again with just five seconds left in the half on a back-shoulder fade pass to Rodney Collier for his second touchdown catch of the afternoon.
But an adjustment came in the second half. Highlands forced Owensboro to throw the ball.
"We had to emphasize focusing on our jobs," Highlands senior Rocco Pangallo said of the Bluebirds' locker room adjustments at the half. "It got a little out of hand."
"We knew they were a run team and they could not pass it. We made them pass and look what happened."
One interception led to a tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter (after a Highlands fumble at the end of the third quarter that could have evened the score), then a second interception gave Highlands the lead back.
Finally, a third interception sealed the victory.
"We always maintain the same level of hard work and dedication and that's why we win games like this," Pangallo said. "We don't get too down. We play every game like it's our last game."
Head Coach Brian Weinrich captures the state title in his first year at the helm of the storied Fort Thomas program.
"We don't panic. We have a good time and we enjoy each other," Weinrich said after the victory. At the break, the team was calmed and just figured it out, he said. "It completely changed the defensive scheme in the second half and it wasn't something we had worked on all week. We figured what we had to do and we did it."
As the Bluebirds left the field as Class 4A champions, they were spotted wishing good luck to Dixie Heights, their Northern Kentucky neighbors, who were set to take the field in the Class 6A championship at Western Kentucky University.
Written by Bryan Burke and Michael Monks, with quotes and image from KHSAA online broadcast