Class 5A, District 5 Football Preview: CovCath team to beat until proven otherwise

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Until someone knocks off the Covington Catholic Colonels in Class 5A, District 5, it’s hard to place them anywhere other than the top.

The Colonels have gone 18-0 against district opponents during the regular season and the first round of the playoffs entering the fourth of the final year of the current alignment. But during the regular season last year, there were a couple of scares for the Colonels. The Cooper Jaguars took the Colonels to quadruple overtime before CovCath escaped with a 31-24 win, and CovCath needed to block a field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter to beat Highlands, 8-7 in Fort Thomas.

Both could challenge CovCath for the top spot in the district this year.

The Colonels came back and rolled the Bluebirds, 38-8 in the first round of the playoffs before knocking off Conner, 35-14. Woodford County ended CovCath’s season by a 28-14 score in Versailles in the third round of the playoffs. District opponents will not match up against each other in the first two rounds of the playoffs like the previous three seasons.

Covington Catholic Colonels

The Colonels finished 9-4 last year and graduated 26 players off that team and Zion Mason transferred to Cincinnati Princeton.

CovCath has some question marks coming into this year just like last year with some inexperience at certain spots. But the quarterback spot is a battle between two people unlike a year ago when three fought for it. Those two are senior Zac Roberts and junior Evan Pitzer. Pitzer has the edge in experience at the position having completed 18 of 37 passes for 252 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in three games last year.

“They’re working hard. It’s always just a daily grind to make sure that they’re focused to kind of continue that tradition we’ve started,” said Eddie Eviston, CovCath head coach. “They’re really good kids to work with. It’s a pretty young group. I’m anxious to see how we handle ourselves early in the season.”

The Colonels want to be more balanced out of their spread offense this year. They rushed for 2,562 yards but only passed for 1,170 for averages of 183 rushing and between 83 and 84 passing per game last year.

Juniors Mason Edwards and Owen Leen are candidates to step into the running back role and play some linebacker. Senior Oliver Bent, juniors Noah Johnson, Braylon Miller and sophomore Oliver Link are candidates to step into the wide receiver slots. Juniors Josh Food and Willie Rodriguez could give opponents things to consider as tight ends. They may also see action as linebackers defensively.

The Colonels like to disrupt things up front in their 3-4 defense. Senior Thomas Schramm is a third-year starter on both lines and senior Max Lawrie is expected to produce on both lines along with senior offensive tackle Aiden Jones, who is committed to Army.

Jones is the leading returning tackler as a linebacker for the Colonels. Jones had 53 solo and 30 assisted tackles including two and a half quarterback sacks.

The Colonels allowed 1,664 yards rushing and 1,517 passing for averages of 128 rushing and between 116 and 117 passing per game. CovCath recovered nine fumbles and intercepted 11 passes last year.

CovCath will again face stiff competition out of the gate when Cincinnati Elder of the Greater Catholic League comes to Park Hills on Aug. 19 for a 7 p.m. game. Eight days later, the Colonels head to the mountains to take on the defending Class 1A champion Pikeville Panthers in the Pike County Bowl.

Highlands Bluebirds

Following that 38-8 loss to CovCath that left the Bluebirds with just their third losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1955, the returning players hit the weight room hard. Highlands hopes it pays off in more ways than one this year.

Head Coach Bob Sphire and Offensive Coordinator Hayden Sphire arrived in March of 2021 leaving them only several months to work with the players before the season began. Bob Sphire said the Bluebirds were behind in the weight room after the scrimmage against Male and it showed in various games last year, especially their ninth straight loss to the Colonels. CovCath put up 368 yards rushing dominating the trenches in that game.

Bob Sphire’s track record indicates major improvement in the second season wherever he’s been. A full off-season with the returning players helped. He wants Highlands to become a solid tackling team.

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“They’re much better prepared to play football and they’re much better prepared to physically match up,” Bob Sphire said. “We still have a large margin for improvement. But they have closed the gap quite a bit. I’m really pleased with the way they’ve worked. We’ve developed more depth. We have more competition out on the field now because they’re physically more able to compete against each other better.”

The 3-4 Highlands defense allowed 1,932 yards rushing and 1,367 yards passing for averages of between 175 and 176 rushing and just more than 124 passing per game. Highlands picked off seven passes and recovered six fumbles last year.

Senior Sam Robinson returns for his third season starting at linebacker. He had 45 tackles including seven for a loss and two sacks. Robinson also picked off two passes and recovered two fumbles. Others looking to make an impact at linebacker are seniors Noah Hodge, Aiden Nevels, juniors Leo Fenik, Reed Hellman and Dalton Roller. Nevels could also slide out at defensive back.

Senior Carson Schwalbach will look to make an impact on both lines. Other defensive linemen in the mix are senior TreVaughn Woods, juniors Carson Shelton, Hollon Schweitzer, sophomores Levi Shearer, Aiden Howard and Diego Race.

Senior Adam Dunn looks to lead the Highlands secondary after making 52 tackles last year. Senior Brennan Kelsay, juniors Lincoln Hicks and Nate Welch are also looking to make an impact back there.

The Highlands Spread offense saw three different men play quarterback last year. But only the last one to start in junior Cam Bottom is in the mix to start there again along with freshman Rio Litmer and sophomore Hayden Haas. Senior Charlie Noon will line up many different places and play some defensive back with junior 6-foot-5-inch Brody Benke lining up at wide receiver.

Highlands passed for 2,113 yards per game for an average of just more than 176 last year. But the running game struggled putting up just 1,132 yards for an average of just less than 103 per game.

Things start up front with the offensive line. Seniors Adam Bowman, Caleb Hollingsworth, juniors Evan Johnson and Josh Studer are looking to make impacts there. Studer could also play linebacker on defense.

Noon rushed for 660 yards on 115 carries and six touchdowns for an average of just less than six yards per carry. Junior Cam Giesler hopes to do more there being able to play a full season. Senior Dawson Hosea, junior Max Shultz and sophomore Deven James along with Robinson could also get carries this year.

Highlands is loaded at wide receiver. Junior Carson Class is the leading returning receiver with 12 catches for 320 yards and five touchdowns last year. Juniors Davis Hinegardner, Matteo Matteoli, sophomore Jackson Arnold, Adam Surrey and Tyus McCarter hope to make big catches this year.

“I think offensively we can be pretty explosive,” Hayden Sphire said. “We have a lot of good receivers. They have a lot of speed and they’re tough to tackle in the open field. Our offensive line has gotten a lot stronger. As a team, we’ve put on 1400 pounds as a team freshmen through sophomores. Anytime you’re adding size to your offensive line and strength, it’s obviously going to help with the running game. We expect to do more of the pushing this year and not getting pushed around on the offensive line. With the reps that we got and the amount of young kids we had to play last year, they got a lot of experience.”

The Bluebirds also have some weapons on special teams. Senior Davis Burleigh made 34 of 35 point-after touchdowns last year.

The Bluebirds own the most state championships among public schools in Kentucky with 23. But the last one came in 2014.

Highlands opens the season Aug. 20 in the Rafferty’s Bowl at Western Kentucky University against the defending Class 5A state champion South Warren Spartans. Game time is 6 p.m. central time.

Cooper Jaguars

The Jaguars appeared to be headed for a nice playoff run after eight games starting 6-2 last year. Their two losses in those first eight games both came by a touchdown in losses to county rival Ryle (14-7) and at Covington Catholic.

But then Highlands came to Union and left with a 35-7 win. The Jaguars rebounded with a 21-0 blanking at Louisville Butler. But the same Conner team that Cooper handled 43-7 during the regular season left with a 14-3 win ending Cooper’s season at 7-4. The Jaguars graduated 21 seniors off that team, but return a number of contributors.

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“It’s a tight-knit group. A lot of our guys do a lot together off the field, which makes it really nice,” head coach Randy Borchers said. “We had a great off-season in the weight room. But a lot of guys also went and worked out on their own in the off-season. The years that we seem to be at our best is when guys do things off the field outside of what we do as a team. We had a bad taste in our mouths at the end of the season. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end. I think these guys are hungry for redemption wanting to come back and make a nice little run at it this year.”

It did not help that senior Eli White could not play down the stretch. He was the team’s second-leading rusher with 603 yards on 92 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards per carry.

The dynamic sophomore tight end and defensive lineman Austin Alexander returns. Borchers said the Jaguars can flank him out offensively. Alexander had 12 catches for 156 yards and one touchdown. He also recorded 61 tackles including five and half quarterback sacks. Alexander has offers from the University of Maryland, the University of Akron (Ohio), Eastern Kentucky University and Liberty University.

Cooper has three players hoping to step in at quarterback in freshman Cam O’Hara, junior Cole Henry and sophomore Isaiah Johnson. Henry and Johnson could also play some wide receiver along with senior Jayce Hotchkiss. Borchers said this is the deepest the Jaguars have been at the skill positions entering their 15th year as a school and program.

“We have a lot of guys getting reps,” Borchers said. “In recent years, we had one or two guys. If you shut them down, you had a really good shot at beating us. With the number of targets we have, it’s going to be hard for defenses to focus on one or two guys.”

Borchers said Cooper will have some growing pains up front on both the offensive and defensive line. The Jaguars put up 2,063 yards rushing and 1,501 passing for averages of between 187 and 188 rushing and between 136 and 137 passing per game. Senior Tyler Witsken returns on the offensive line. Senior Jake Harmeyer could also step into a role there in addition to his return at linebacker defensively.

“We feel like if we can get that straightened out, we can have a solid team this year,” Borchers said. “We know we have to be patient with this team. Our goal especially up front is we have to continue to learn and get better. Our philosophy here has always been we want to play our best football come the end of the year.”

Alexander is the only returning starter on the defensive line. Candidates to step into roles there are juniors Colby Moody, Jesse Sierman and sophomore Drayden Pavey.

The Jaguars return all three linebackers in Harmeyer, juniors Jack Lonaker and Lucas Hughes. They also return White and Hotchkiss at the cornerback spots. Johnson returns at safety and junior transfer JR Hayes expects to step into the other safety spot out of the 4-2-5 Cooper base defense. Lonaker led Cooper with 142 tackles last year with one sack. Harmeyer had a team-high four fumble recoveries and Hotchkiss a team-high two interceptions.

The Jaguars allowed 1,138 yards rushing and 1,084 passing last year for averages of between 103 and 104 rushing and between 98 and 99 passing per game last year. They recovered 10 fumbles and picked off five passes last year. Borchers said he felt like defense was Cooper’s strong point last year and hopes to see that continue this year.

Cooper opens the season Aug. 19 at home against George Rogers Clark. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

Conner Cougars

Conner has made it to the second round of the playoffs two of the past three seasons in the current district. The Cougars finished 7-5 losing 35-14 at Covington Catholic in the second round of the playoffs last year. Head Coach David Trosper and staff saw 22 seniors graduate from that team and now enters his 16th season leading the Cougars.

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Trosper said he likes the depth at the skill positions even without the return of running back Alijah Thompson. The Cougars do see senior wide receiver Terry Phillips return after he caught 14 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown last year. Junior Ben Fay is also looking to make an impact at wide receiver and linebacker.

Senior Daven Kurtz is looking to step in at running back with senior Brennan Kahle taking over at quarterback. Out of the Spread offense, the Cougars put up 2,254 yards rushing and 929 yards passing for averages of just under 188 rushing and between 77 and 78 passing.

“Anyone that’s seen Conner football understands that our quarterbacks are the guys,” Trosper said. “Brennan works hard. He wants to be the guy. He’s got all the intangibles. He processes things and has a moxy about him. That’s why I like him.”

Trosper’s main concern is the line play on both sides. Third-year starting senior Grant Reece is the only returning starter on both sides. Sophomore Dylan Stewart is expected to fill a role on the offensive line.

“We have some guys who are going to have to step up and do some things,” Trosper said. “That’s the thing. Our kids buy into our program. They love to do what we do. That’s why we continuously get better. They’re coachable kids. When you have someone that’s been doing this for 32 years like I have, we can make them great players. We overachieve a lot and we’ll continue to do that because we have kids that want to work hard and get after it.”

But Trosper said he’s liking what he sees out of the secondary led by senior Tristan Wilson and junior Jack Murray. The 3-4 Conner defense yielded 1,933 yards rushing and 1,461 yards passing for averages of just more than 161 rushing and just below 122 passing.

The Cougars open the season Aug. 19 against Henry Clay at 6 p.m. It’s the first of two games in the Fayette County Public Schools Mingus Beef Jerky Bowl at Lafayette.

Boone County Rebels

The Rebels are showing signs of improvement under head coach Bryson Warner.

After going 2-8 and 2-7 in his first two seasons in Florence, the Rebels finished 4-6 for the most wins they’ve had in a season since going 9-5 in 2011 when they went all the way to the Class 6A state semifinals. The Rebels had gone 4-62 the previous four seasons before Warner took over in 2019. Boone County finished the season with a 23-20 overtime win at Tates Creek.

Boone County has 75 players led by senior running back Braden McCarty, senior left tackle and defensive end Carson Raines who stands 6-6 and 260 pounds in addition to juniors Shaun Roberts and Josh Wick.

“Bottom line is we’re super excited about this team and these young people playing for us,” Warner said. “I say young people because we have one female (Rebecca McCray) who plays for us. She’s not just a kicker. She plays for us. We’re excited about the season.”

Warner believes in walking the walk as opposed to talking the talk. Opponents outscored Boone County, 241-130 last year for averages of about 24-13.

The Rebels play a power spread offense. They rushed for 1,021 yards and passed for 840 for averages of about 102 rushing and 84 passing per game. Opponents shut them out twice last year.

Boone County plays a 4-3 defense. The Rebels yielded 1,396 yards rushing and 708 passing for averages of about 140 rushing and 71 passing per game.

A district win would lift a huge weight off the program. The Rebels are 0-12 in District 5 action since the current format came about in 2019.

“The support and appreciation of the Boone County program has been unbelievable in every way,” Warner said. “I’ve never received a complaint from a parent. I know coaches get frustrated by that stuff sometimes.”

Boone County opens the season Aug. 19 at Russell, which finished 6-5 last year losing 52-42 at Ashland in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

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