By Dan Wright
ALEXANDRIA, Ky. – A change of attitude, and cleats, nearly brought about a seismic shift in the balance of football power in Campbell County, but Highlands weathered a fourth quarter comeback, and 14 penalties, to knock off rival Campbell County, 23-16, Friday night at Campbell County High School in Alexandria.
The Camels held Highlands scoreless for the final three quarters and quarterback Carson Plessinger, armed with a fresh pair of cleats at halftime better suited to deal with the wet conditions, scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and two two-point conversions to threaten to end Highlands’ hold over its county rival.
“We coaches believe in our team, and I think after the last three quarters our kids are believing in our team now, too,” said Campbell County head coach Steve Lickert. “For us it’s just that mental block of getting over the fact that Campbell County hasn’t beaten Highlands since ’91.”
Early on it seemed there would be no doubt Highlands, sporting a new starting quarterback in Beau Hoge, a new head coach in Brian Weinrich, and even a new logo celebrating its 100th season of play on one side of its helmet, would roll to its 13th straight win against the Camels.
A fumble halted Highlands initial drive at the Campbell County 2-yard line, but the Bluebirds turned it that mistake into nine points a matter of 22 seconds.
Senior defensive lineman Donnie Mills sack in the end zone resulted in a safety on the next play, and on the first play after the free kick, Hoge hit Alex Veneman with a 40-yard touchdown pass that put Highlands ahead, 9-0.
Hoge, the son of former NFL running back Merril Hoge, connected on each of his first eight passes in the game and added rushing touchdowns of 15 and 27 yards to put the Bluebirds on top, 23-0, before the first quarter was over.
After that dominating quarter in which Highlands gained 167 yards to 42 by Campbell County, the Camels regrouped and outgained Highlands, 219 yards to 195, the rest of the way.
“That’s all that dear in the headlights stuff. When you see that Highlands jersey walk out and you believe all the hype you go out and you kind of let them do things,” said Lickert, himself a Highlands graduate. “But (Hoge) ran wild the first half. He’s a very good football player and they’ve got a nice offensive line in front of him. I look forward to him having a really good year, I just wish he wouldn’t have had such a good night against us.”
Hoge, who started by completing 6-of-6 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown passing and rushing five times for 60 yards and two scores in the first quarter, finished 15 of 25 for 183 yards passing, also rushing 12 times for 96 yards.
“Don’t get me wrong, Campbell County’s a really good program,” Hoge said. “But we are a little disappointed because we got off to that hot start and then we went flat and shot ourselves in the foot a bunch. We’re happy, but not extremely so.”
The Camels managed to make enough adjustments to slow the Bluebirds down and keep the score at 23-0 at halftime, then turned to its offense to close the gap.
“What it came down to is our defensive staff did a really nice job of making adjustments,” said Lickert, “and our offense kept their offense off the field and gave our defense some time to rest.”
Campbell County stopped the Bluebirds on downs to open the second half, then launched a 17-play, 8:21 drive that did not end until Plessinger bulled his way in from two yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter, following that with a two-point conversion run to cut Highlands lead to 15, 23-8.
Plessinger finished with 35 carries for 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns, completing three of nine passes for 80 yards.
“We told him at halftime we believe you can do this,” Lickert said. “You need to go do it. Your teammates believe in you and once he bought that and understood it and they got around him, we played really well.”
Campbell County’s next possession ended on a turnover on downs at its own 17-yard line with 5:25 remaining, but two false starts and a holding penalty on Highlands helped the Camels get the ball back with 3:20 left.
“We weren’t executing,” said Highlands head coach Brian Weinrich, who took over as head coach after Dale Mueller ended his 20-year run guiding the Bluebirds after last season. “They played well and we stopped executing. We had some goofy penalties. We just need to clean it up and move on.”
A 57-yard pass from Plessinger to senior receiver Matt Mayer set up a 1-yard score by Plessinger, with another two-point run bringing the Camels within a touchdown, 23-16, with 2:06 remaining.
Senior Grayson Heck recovered an onside kick at midfield, however, and Hoge ended the Camels comeback hopes with an 11-yard run on fourth-and-two
from the 42.
“We were kind of hoping it wasn’t going to come down to something like that,” said Hoge, “but if it does, now we know we can win games like that. That’s a confidence booster.”
Despite the loss, the Camels confidence also appears to have received a boost after also playing well in a pre-season scrimmage with another perennial power, CovCath, before the season.
“CovCath and Highlands are two very good teams that we’ve played and we’re starting to close the gap on them,” Plessinger said. “Our expectations for both those games were to beat them and, even though we didn’t, we played really good and if not for that first quarter in this Highlands game, I think we have a pretty good chance.”
at CAMPBELL 0-0-0-16—16
H- Safety, Mills sacked Plessinger in end zone
H- Veneman 40 pass from Hoge (Dougherty kick)
H- Hoge 15 run (Dougherty kick)
H- Hoge 27 run (Dougherty kick)
C- Plessinger 2 run (Plessinger run)
C- Plessinger 1 run (Plessinger run)
RECORDS: Highlands 1-0, Campbell County 1-1.