Highland coaches made it their mission to refocus their players and get back to their brand of football Saturday when they faced a 26-14 deficit to Pinnacle in the 6A Conference championship game.
The Hawks still had plenty of time, about 8 minutes total on the clock. They just had to find a way to get their offense going after it had become stagnant throughout most of the second half.
Junior running back Eli Kerby was the answer.
Kerby took a handoff from quarterback Kalen Fisher and outran the defense for a 66-yard touchdown. It was the start of Highland’s rally that ended with the Hawks beating Pinnacle 37-26 to win their second straight 6A championship.
“The great part about our coaching staff is nobody panics,” Highland coach Brock Farrel said. “Pinnacle did a great job and if you start losing your mind on the kids they don’t execute. Almost like going back to your first love, dance with who brought you there and find a way to finish.
“It feels great.”
Highland and Pinnacle traded blows in the first half before the Pioneers took over all momentum.
Kody Cullimore was the first to find the end zone for the Hawks on a 1-yard rush. Chance Cauthen then scored from 8 yards out in response to a 55-yard touchdown from Pinnacle quarterback Wyatt Horton to tight end Duce Robinson.
Then, the floodgates opened for the Pioneers.
Horton connected with wideout Myles Libman on a 51-yard pass. That was followed by a 23-yard connection between the two before the half. Pinnacle’s momentum continued in the third as Libman and Horton connected for the third time of the game on a 7-yard pass to give the Pioneers a two-score advantage.
That’s when Kerby took off for the touchdown, swinging momentum in favor of Highland in the process.
“I knew it would work because on film they jump to the jet sweep,” said Kerby, who rushed for 144 yards and the touchdown. “I knew all I had to do was outrun the safety. If I got caught, that would’ve been embarrassing. I’m just glad I was able to spark our team again, add a little momentum and hype to our sideline.”
Highland’s defense, the strength of the team all season, began to flex its muscle after it was pushed back on its heels by Pinnacle’s air attack. The Highland secondary started to lockdown Pinnacle’s wideouts, and the defensive line started to get pressure on Horton.
After scoring on four of their first seven drives, Pinnacle punted and threw three straight interceptions to end the game. The second came after Fisher connected with Joseph Walter to give Highland the lead.
Horton’s pass to Robinson went over his head and into the hands of Highland defensive back Cole Crandall who returned it 62 yards for a touchdown to officially put the game out of reach.
He added one more interception at the end of the game.
“I knew that was it, that was game,” Crandall said before explaining what he saw on the play. “I saw Duce, amazing receiver, go on a slant. It was overthrown barely, hit his fingertips and went right into me. Started running, got some amazing blocks and took it to the house.”
All that was in my mind was taking it to the crib.
This year’s Highland team differs from the two that advanced to the 6A state title in the past.
The previous two teams had an identity on offense with quarterback Gage Dayley leading the way. Dayley, who graduated in 2022, now is an assistant coach in the box for the Hawks.
Replacing him was difficult. Joseph Walter got the nod, but the offense struggled. Fisher, a transfer from Hamilton, was given the go-ahead despite his young age. Not only did the Hawks start to put up points, but a portion of those were also from Fisher to Walter, who began to flourish at wideout.
The change is something Farrel credits for the team’s success. Along with their defense, which he said will always be their strong suit.
And with a large majority of talent returning to Highland next season, the Hawks are on the brink of a dynasty.
“We kinda had to figure out our identity on offense,” Farrel said. “Struggled through some wins and even some losses. It’s a different type of rewarding from this year to last year.
“Everybody says, ‘Where you gonna be next year?’ About the same. We don’t go away, ever. That’s just who we are.”