By Rob Ellington
CINCINNATI – When a team has lost only three games over the last six-plus years as Highlands has, there obviously aren’t too many chances to avenge losses. But one of those rare opportunities was there for the taking Friday night.
Unfortunately for the Bluebirds, revenge was not a dish served cold on a chilly night in West Price Hill.
Highlands still acquitted itself well, rallying from a 14-point first half deficit, and nearly climbing back from a 13-point second half deficit before falling to Elder, 30-27 before a packed and raucous crowd at The Pit.
"I couldn’t be more proud,” said Highlands head coach Dale Mueller. "We were down 14, we came back. Down 13, we came back, and we were just that far from winning the game."
Elder (7-2) sophomore quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw for one TD and ran for another to lead the Panthers’ offense, while senior defensive end Dustin Applegate led the defense with four sacks and a fumble recovery in the end zone for his first career touchdown.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” Applegate said. “The offense, the defense….I can’t describe it. They’re (Highlands) a great team, I’m just excited (about the win).”
Highlands (8-1) senior quarterback Drew Houliston threw for 276 yards on 19-of-37 passing with two touchdowns and one interception, but he was knocked out of the game on the Bluebirds’ next-to-last drive, apparently injured on a sack.
Senior wide receiver Jenson Feggins caught 11 of those passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns, while senior running back Zach Harris rushed for 65 hard-earned yards and two scores.
Ramsey got the Panthers on the board first when he hit senior tight end Devin Pike in the back of the end zone on a 4-yard pass with 2:59 left in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Applegate and sophomore defensive tackle Joe Schroer made things difficult with pressure on Houliston.
“They’ve got great tackles, but we just kept pushing,” said Applegate of the pass rush pressure. “They started getting at us a little bit, but we changed it up and got better with it.”
Elder senior running back Chris Schroer scored with a two-yard run early in the second quarter to give Elder a 14-0 lead and seemingly taking control of the game.
But a team doesn’t win six consecutive state titles and 95 of its last 98 games by just rolling over with a shaky 18-minute stretch of football.
Houliston hooked up with Feggins on a fourth-and-goal from seven yards out to cut the Elder lead to seven, 14-7 at the midway point of the second quarter.
Following an Elder punt, the Bluebirds ran their two-minute drill to perfection and were rewarded when Harris went three yards on a draw to tie the score up with 23 seconds left in the half.
The beginning of the second half couldn’t have gone any worse for Highlands.
After forcing a Highlands’ three-and-out to start the half, Ramsey put the Panthers up 20-14 when he called his own number and went 35 yards with 10:01 left in the third.
On the first play of the ensuing Bluebirds possession, Houliston mishandled the shotgun snap and after a scramble for the football, Applegate fell on the ball in the end zone, and in 16 seconds of game clock, the Elder lead had ballooned to 13.
“That was big, that hurt us,” Mueller said. “We went three-and-out there (offensively), and then giving up that second touchdown.”
But the Bluebirds bounced back again. Harris cut the Elder lead to six, 27-21 when he took it in from the 2 with 6:40 left in the third quarter.
Elder senior kicker Matt Murray capped a long drive with three seconds left in the period when he hit a 23-yard field goal to make it 30-21 heading into the final 12 minutes.
Highlands appeared to be on the verge of getting to within one score early in the fourth quarter, but Elder defensive back Tim Schiller picked off Houliston on an athletic play near the goal line and Elder took over.
The Panthers nearly were caught in the end zone for a safety on the first play following the pick, but Ramsey hit senior wide receiver Andrew Sportsman on the second play at the 35 to get the Panthers out of the shadow of their goal post.
Elder fumbled on the next play at its own 43, and Highlands cashed in five plays later when Houliston hit Feggins from nine yards out. The extra point was wide right, but the Elder score was 30-27 with just 5:13 left.
Elder went three and out on its next possession, but the defense responded, forcing a batted down pass on fourth-and-28 after a holding penalty and two sacks, one of which ended the night for Houliston.
Elder forced Highlands to burn all of its time outs on three running plays, but Ramsey was intercepted on fourth down by senior defensive back Jackson Bardo.
Highlands took over at its own 30 with no time outs. Elder forced backup junior quarterback Beau Hoge into three incompletions and a fourth-down sack to close the game out.
Chris Schroer led the Panthers with 89 yards on 29 carries and his second quarter touchdown, but Highlands did a much better job on containing him compared to the previous
meeting, a 259-yards on 45-carries performance last year in Fort Thomas.
Peyton Ramsey added 68 yards on the ground. Sportsman paced Panthers’ receivers with 118 yards on five catches, while senior wide receiver Austin Cirpriani also went over the century mark in reception yards with 103 on eight catches.
Highlands has one more tune-up before the quest begins for its seventh consecutive state championship when they host Class 5A Warren Central (5-4) on Nov. 2 in Fort Thomas.
Elder will try to strengthen its case for Ohio Division I seeding and home-field consideration when the Panthers travel to La Salle (4-5) next Friday.