FORT THOMAS – Highlands started Friday afternoon’s 5A state semifinal game as hot as any team possibly could. Pulaski County finished the same contest on a tear of its own, defeating the Bluebirds 41-31.
The Maroons (13-1) scored the final 27 points of the contest and overcame a 31-14 deficit to claim the semifinal victory and send themselves to their second straight 5A state championship, next weekend, in Bowling Green.
“We just came out in the second half and we just played Maroons football,” Pulaski County coach John Hines said. “Offensively we executed better. I think we wore them down up front a little bit and were able to run the ball better in the second half than we were in the first half.”
Pulaski County, the defending 5A state champions, scored touchdowns on four of its six second-half drives and ramped up the offensive tempo throughout the game. The Maroons ran 80 offensive plays.
“They ran a lot of plays, we had to run a lot of plays on defense,” Highlands defensive coordinator Shelby Jones said. “When you play a lot of plays, the guys get a little bit tired and things like that happen.”
Highlands (8-6), the defending 4A state champion, scored 14 quick points in the first quarter.
The Bluebirds capped a six-play, game-opening drive with a one-yard run from Nick Kendall. After both teams traded punts Jared Dougherty intercepted a Maroons pass and returned it to the Pulaski nine, two plays later Kendall scored from four yards out to put Highlands up by two scores.
Pulaski got on the board late in the first on a four-yard run from Maroons quarterback Riley Hall.
An Austin Hergott rushing touchdown with 9:31 remaining in the half put the Bluebirds up 21-7. Hergott, the Birds senior quarterback, and a Central Michigan commit, finished 14-for-21 through the air for 202 yards and a passing touchdown
It appeared that the Maroons’ running game took a hit late in the second half when running back Jaylon Conwell had to be helped off the field with a thigh injury. Senior George Gregory answered the call, taking over for Conwell at running back.
“George Gregory has always been a running back that can play either running back spot,” Hines said. “He played that running back spot for us earlier in the season when Jaylon Conwell was injured and missed two or three games in the middle of the season. George is just a tough hard guy to bring down.”
Gregory went on to score on a Statue-of-Liberty play from three yards out with 2:04 to go in the half.
Highlands answered quickly, Hergott connected with Eric Miller for a 39-yard touchdown giving the Birds a 28-14 lead with 1:39 to go in the half.
Pulaski fumbled on the opening drive of the second half, resulting in a Highlands 27-yard field goal from Dougherty.
It would be the final points of the night for Highlands.
The ensuing Maroons drive resulted in a Hall touchdown pass to Jake Johnson. Hall finished 26 of 33 through the air for 305 yards and a passing touchdown.
Highland’s next drive would stall when a fake punt attempt came up short. Gregory would eventually score from eight yards out.
A Christian Holman interception set up another Pulaski scoring drive – this one, a one-yard Gregory run with 10:22 to go in the contest, gave the Maroons their first lead of the game.
“They made a couple of (defensive) adjustments that were giving us a little bit of fits and we were trying to counter it the best we could and we ran out of time,” Highlands head coach Brian Weinrich said.
Pulaski sealed the victory with a three-yard touchdown run from Gregory with 1:31 to go. Gregory finished with 130 yards on 22 carries and four touchdowns. Gregory also had six catches for 104 yards.
Johnson led Pulaski with 10 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Kendall led Highlands on the ground, finishing with 24 carries and 146 yards. Fifteen of those yards came in the second half.
“Obviously Highlands is one of the great programs in the history of Kentucky High School football and it can be an intimidating place to play with the people on you and the noise but our team is resilient,” Hines said. ” … They just believe they can pull it out. They just don’t give up. I’m proud of them for that. They’re fun to coach.”
Pulaski County 41, Highlands 31
Pulaski County 7 7 14 13 41
Highlands 14 14 3 0 31
H-Kendall 1 run (Dougherty kick)
H-Kendall 4 run (Dougherty kick)
P-Hall 4 run (Burgett kick)
H-Hergott 4 run (Dougherty kick)
P-Gregory 3 run (Burgett kick)
H-Miller 39 pass from Hergott (Dougherty kick)
H-FG Dougherty 27
P-Johnson 17 pass from Hall (Burgett kick)
P-Gregory 8 run (Burgett kick)
P-Gregory 1 run (Burgett kick)
P-Gregory 3 run (Kick failed)
Records: P 13-1, H 8-6