The Ryle Raiders pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season and ended the Highlands Bluebirds' 37-game winning streak in the process with a 28-26 win in Thursday's regular-season finale.
Ryle (9-1) dominated the clock with a power running game led by senior quarterback Conner Hempel, who finished the night by running for 118 yards and three touchdowns on Senior Night. His biggest run proved to be one of his shortest gains of the night.
With just over a minute left in the contest and Highlands (9-1) out of timeouts, Raiders' head coach opted to go for it on 4th and inches. The play call was originally to give it to running back Travis Elliott. However, Hempel called an audible at the line of scrimmage and decided to keep himself. He picked up two yards on the quarterback sneak to clinch the win.
"We were going to hand the ball to Travis and we got up to the line and a couple of us decided we were going to sneak it," Hempel claimed.
"Words couldn't describe what I felt then, to beat a team of this caliber is a great feeling and one I will never forget," Hempel said of picking up a game-clinching first down.
The Bluebirds got on the scoreboard first as Daniel Gold returned the game's opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Head coach Dale Mueller opted to go for two rather than kick the extra point, but the Raiders sniffed it out and held Highlands out of the end zone. The play would prove big later in the game.
--Postgame: Conner Hempel, Ryle
--Postgame: Travis Elliott, Ryle
--Postgame: Bryson Warner, Ryle
--Postgame: Dale Mueller, Highlands
--Ryle's big fourth-down conversion
The Raiders answered the call by putting together a solid, time-consuming drive that ended with Elliott, who would leave the game with a leg injury but return to finish, punching it in for a yard out. The junior finished the game 95 yards on 27 carries. He was feeling no pain after the game ended.
"It's fine," Elliott said of his leg, but he was too excited about his team's accomplishment. "It feels great, I remember when we beat them in eighth grade it was big, but this tonight is even better. Hopefully, this gives our team a tremendous amount of confidence heading to the playoffs."
The second quarter was tightly played with both teams getting on the board once. Bluebirds' quarterback Patrick Towles ran for a score from six yards out first. Highlands, trying to make up the difference from the failed two-point conversion earlier, did not convert again.
Hempel answered the call with a 1-yard touchdown run of his own and after the extra point was good Ryle led 14-12. That is how the game would stand as the two teams headed for the locker room.
The Raiders' defense would set the tone in the third quarter, shutting the Bluebirds out. It was a special night for linebacker Court Mace, who became the team's all-time leading tackler as he finished the game with 10 tackles and a sack. The only score in the frame came on Hempel's second rushing touchdown, this time from 30 yards out.
Hempel completed the hat trick when he scored for a third time on a 31-yard run in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to give Ryle a 28-12 lead with nine minutes to play.
Highlands, who rallied back to beat Ryle in Week 2, wouldn't go without a fight. Corey Compton produced a 4-yard rushing touchdown (conversion successful) followed by a 40-yard passing score as Towles connected with Eli Shchultz to cut the deficit to two. However, Ryle's defense would keep Towles out of the end zone again for the third time out of four two-point conversion attempts.
Ryle would run out the lock to pull out one of the biggest wins in the history of the program.
"We feel it does a lot (for our program) that is why we were playing Highlands," head coach Bryson Warner said. "When you take on a challenge like Highlands and that program it certainly gives you a tremendous amount of confidence."
The loss ends Highlands' 37-game winning streak one win short of tying Beechwood's Northern Kentucky record. The team's last loss came at Colerain on September 5, 2008. Their last Northern Kentucky loss came to Covington Catholic in 2006 at Highlands. For the Bluebirds' seniors the loss is the first they've experienced at the varsity level. Head coach Dave Mueller reflected on the run with his team after the game, but immediately started a goal for a new, five-game winning streak which would ensure them another state title.
"Each year at Highlands, we either win the state championship or we don't win the state championship. We have those two kinds of years. And this year we want to win the state championship," head coach Dale Mueller said. "I am really blessed to be a part of the whole thing (winning streak)."
Both teams will start the playoffs at home when the postseason kicks off next Friday night.