Lexington Catholic senior linebacker Chase Boling has a clear-eyed assessment of the challenge facing the Knights as they head to Northern Kentucky for the Class 4A semifinals Friday night.
"If we go up there not afraid of big, bad Highlands, I think we'll be just fine," Boling said. "If you go in there scared and afraid to make mistakes, you're not going to win."
Highlands strikes fear into a lot of opponents because it is the pre-eminent program in Kentucky. This is the Bluebirds' 100th year of football, and they hope to cap it with a 23rd state championship.
Highlands leads the state in all-time victories with 866, and it's in the state semifinals for the 16th time in 20 years.
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The Bluebirds have beaten Lexington Catholic in the semifinals the last three years. Overall, they've beaten the Knights five times in a row, and six out of seven.
"We're sick and tired of losing to them," Boling said.
Lexington Catholic blanked Highlands 17-0 in the 2005 playoffs on its way to the 3A state title. The Bluebirds haven't been shut out in 130 games since then.
Highlands has another streak going: 60 consecutive home-field victories against Kentucky competition over the last eight years.
It is against that backdrop that Lexington Catholic visits the Bluebirds on Friday night.
"It's a great place to play, with a great venue and a great atmosphere against a great program," Knights Coach Mark Perry said. "But once we kick it off, it's like any other game we have to play inside the white lines."
Perry, in his first year at Lexington Catholic, wasn't around last year when Highlands raced to a 36-0 lead in the second quarter on its way to a 49-35 victory.
Boling remembers the loss.
"Highlands came out hard and got the big lead before we started coming back," he said. "The entire second half we just didn't stop, and if it wasn't for the rolling clock rule, I think the outcome would've been different.
"Our game plan this year is to be aggressive and physical right from the start, and not let up the entire game."
Both teams pack plenty of offensive punch.
Lexington Catholic senior Reese Ryan is facing Highlands for the third time. Last year he threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns.
He's passed for 7,500 yards and 86 TDs in his career.
"He's a phenomenal quarterback, something special," Highlands Coach Brian Weinrich said.
Ryan's main targets this year have been J.J. Ogbogu and Andy Thompson, who've combined for 101 catches, 1,600 yards and 19 TDs.
"Their running game, with (Jaylen Jones), adds another dimension to their offense," Weinrich said. "They stretch the entire field every play."
Jones has rushed for 1,646 yards and 17 TDs.
Highlands will counter with its own star quarterback in Beau Hoge. After waiting his turn and playing receiver the last two years, Hoge has thrown for 3,048 yards and 32 TDs, and run for 654 yards and 20 TDs this season. The son of former NFL player and current ESPN analyst Merril Hoge has committed to BYU.
The Bluebirds' leading receiver is Alex Veneman, who has 80 catches for 1,448 yards and 21 TDs. Last year against Lexington Catholic, Veneman had three grabs for 151 yards, including an 86-yard TD.
Nick Kendall and Griffin Urlage have each rushed for more than 600 yards and have 11 TDs between them.
"They've got a lot of weapons and keep pressure on your defense," Perry said. "The most important thing we've got to do is tackle well."
Boling seconded that.
Last week Hoge earned national notice with a dazzling 81-yard TD run against Covington Catholic. It was the top play on ESPN's SportsCenter on Friday night.
Boling, who's closing in on 100 tackles this season, saw Hoge's TD run on YouTube and in film study this week.
"It goes to show what happens if you're not ready to tackle," Boling said. "On that (81-yard) run, at least eight people were trying to dive at his legs. You can't do that.
"We have to have everybody swarming to the ball, have good form in our tackling and wrap up."
The Highlands-Lexington Catholic winner will wrap up a spot in the state finals on Dec. 6 in Bowling Green.
Owensboro and North Oldham meet in Friday night's other 4A semifinal.