By Dan Wright
FORT THOMAS, Ky. – For one half, there was hope around the state that someone this season would have a chance to unseat Highlands as the 4A state champions.
After trailing at halftime, 24-15 in Friday night’s season opener against Boyle County at David Cecil Memorial Stadium, however, the Bluebirds scored 37 straight points to rout the Rebels, 52-31, as the five-time defending state champions retained their class perch.
“We hate losing. We’re not about losing over here,” said junior running back Jaylen Hayes, one of several new contributors for the Bluebirds this season. “Coach Mueller was furious, obviously. He told us this is the time to step it up and we’ve got to step it up now to win this game and we all decided we needed to turn it up.”
Hayes, along with 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior running back Zach Harris and 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior quarterback Donovan McCoy, was one of three Bluebirds to rush for at least 98 yards in the game.
In the first half, however, it was Boyle County’s rushing attack that controlled the game, amassing 217 yards on the ground.
The Rebels took advantage of an inexperienced Highlands team that was reeling a bit from a 30-point loss in an exhibition game against Louisville Trinity the week before, pounding the Bluebirds with three touchdowns in their first three possessions to take a 21-8 lead.
Senior Seph Burke was Boyle County’s workhouse, scoring touchdowns of one and 15 yards, but senior Lloyd Hall provided a speedy option out of the wishbone, taking a handoff 42 yards through the middle of the Bluebirds' defense for another score.
Burke finished with 161 yards on 30 carries, including 100 yards on 17 carries in the first half, with Hall adding 94 yards on nine carries.
Rebels quarterback Casey Whittle completed 11 of 23 passes for 142 yards.
“We had a few guys who, their head wasn’t right,” said McCoy of the slow start. “It was the first game. It was the first half of the first game. We had a lot of guys new to varsity play. So we had to get that first little bit of jitters out and we came out (in the second half) and we did our jobs and that’s why we ended up winning.”
Senior Walt Harris’ 21-yard field goal extended the Rebels lead to nine, 24-15, but Boyle County missed an opportunity to add to that lead when it turned the ball over on downs after a short punt gave it possession at the Highlands 32-yard line with 54 seconds left in the half.
Highlands' defense built on the momentum of that stop in the second half, beginning when 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior linebacker Michael Ayers pounced on a fumbled handoff at the Boyle County 19.
McCoy made his way into the end zone two plays later, pulling Highlands to within two, 24-22, 2:01 into the second half.
Boyle County followed with a drive into Highlands territory, but, with Whittle trying to work his way out of a sack, 6-foot, 185-pound junior linebacker Thomas Wrobleski delivered a hit that jarred the ball loose, and 5-foot-9, 195-pound defensive lineman Gabe Schultz returned the fumble to the Rebels' 45 yard line.
McCoy again found the end zone, this time from 18 yards out three plays later to put the Bluebirds ahead, 28-24, with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
“Those (turnovers) were really big,” said Hayes. “Those were two of the biggest momentum changes I’ve seen, because we got the ball at the opposite side of the 50, and we were able to just pound the ball down their throat the entire time.”
Hayes, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior, built on that momentum on Highlands' next possession by breaking two tackles to get to the left sideline before outrunning the Boyle County defense for an 80-yard touchdown run.
“He’s one of our top two running backs,” said Highlands coach Dale Mueller. “We were playing Zach (Hayes) more than Jaylen, so Jaylen came in fresh.”
After a three-and-out by Boyle County, McCoy concluded the Bluebirds third-quarter outburst by spinning out of a tackle on his way to a 51-yard touchdown run, his third touchdown in four carries in the quarter.
Junior Evan Allen added a 20-yard field goal in the third quarter, and McCoy’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:52 remaining gave Highlands a 52-24 lead.
The Rebels managed their lone touchdown of the second half on a 26-yard pass from Whittle to freshman Josiah Robbins with 1:05 remaining.
“Those guys (the Rebels) were playing well, but we’ve got a lot of good football players, and we wore them down some, I think,” Mueller said of the turnaround.
While the Bluebirds weren’t able to rely on a superstar quarterback like they did last season when Patrick Towles was named the state’s player of the year, they were able to counter with a diverse rushing attack.
Harris picked up 119 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, while McCoy had 10 carries for 99 yards and a four touchdowns and Hayes carried the ball six times for 98 yards and two scores.
McCoy was also able to show off his arm at times, completing 5 of 10 passes for 97 yards, including a 57-yard strike