By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
If the trend holds to form, the Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team could claim its seventh regional title.
Since winning back-to-back state titles in 2005 and 2006, Highlands has won a regional crown every even year in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 squad fell 2-0 to Louisville Sacred Heart in the state title game and the 2010 team lost 3-0 in the Sectional Title game to eventual state champion St. Henry.
Highlands finished 8-9-1 last year winning just one of 10 contests after starting the campaign 4-0. But the Bluebirds rebounded in the tournament winning their sixth straight District 37 tournament title with wins over Newport Central Catholic and Bishop Brossart. They also beat Covington Holy Cross, 6-2 in the 10th Region semifinals before losing 4-1 to eventual state champion Notre Dame.
“We really pulled together once we knew we were facing NCC (Newport Central) Catholic,” said Courtney Wiseman, Highlands senior defender. “The team stepped up and became one.”
Highlands would like for nothing more than to get back to the state championship. The Bluebirds are 316-170-30 since the program began in 1987. They are 32-24-5 under fourth-year head coach Tommy Kearns.
Teams from Northern Kentucky have won five of the last eight state championships. Aside from Highlands, Notre Dame has two crowns and St. Henry one.
“I think we’ve come out and had a really good preseason so far,” Kearns said. “Tryouts were extremely competitive. We have the potential to (get back to state). It’s a matter of how we continue to perform and grow.”
Highlands graduated nine seniors from last year’s squad. This includes leading goal-scorer Maria Weyer with 16.
But this year’s squad has another solid senior class led by captains Wiseman and midfielder Ava Abner.
Abner returns after tearing her right anterior cruciated ligament during basketball season. She tried to track down a loose ball against Boone County and Sydney Moss undercut her. Moss, the daughter of NFL standout Randy Moss, is enrolled to play basketball at the University of Florida. But Abner recovered in six months.
“It’s part of the game. It happens to the best of us,” Abner said. “To get back as fast as you can is a really good way to prosper. It was a goal for this year. I got back and can help my team.”
Highlands has 21 accomplished players on varsity including 14 with varsity experience. All players could be called on to contribute this year. Aside from Abner and Wiseman, senior Jesse Daley returns at goalkeeper where she might split time with junior Sarah Owen.
“We’ve been focusing on working as a team,” Abner said. “We’ve had superstar players we’d focus on in the past. Every single player matters, even if you’re on the bench.”
The other seniors are midfielders Kati Walls, Taylor Roy, forward Maddie Gates, defender Ally Laycock, defender/midfielder Kara Painter, and midfielder/defender Paige Kruse. Other juniors that could contribute are forward Kelsey Etherton, midfielder Ellie New and midfielder Alyssa Farley. Sophomores midfielder Allyson Bridewell, defender Brooke Daugherty, forward Taylor Vaughn and freshman forward Brooklynn Rivers could also play big roles this year.
The seniors have been trying to install solid team chemistry. The old saying goes, “Boys can be mad at each other and still play together. Girls can’t.”
“To start off this year, we said, ‘Whatever happens on the field stays on the field,” Wiseman said. “Girls are going to come to practice mad. We want to have good attitudes at practice and not bring other people down because girls are like that. We try to be content with each other.”
Highlands moves to the new Region 9, District 36 similar to basketball this fall so the Bluebirds have to go through St. Henry and Notre Dame to get to state. Highlands faces Newport Central Catholic for the top seed in the regular season with new programs Bellevue and Dayton facing off for the third and four seeds. Highlands and NewCath do not play Bellevue and Dayton during the regular season.
Highlands has four games cancelled last year because of excessive rains. But the team will have a new field at Tower Park this year.
“It’s a brand new surface. We had a nice Bermuda surface from 2000 to 2006,” Kearns said. “The Bermuda died and did not come back. We really struggled having six teams play and train on the same field. Having an all-weather surface, we don’t have to worry about the field being a mess.”
Highlands opened the season Monday with a 1-0 win at Ryle. Rivers scored the game’s lone goal with Owen and Daley combining for the shutout in net with two saves each. They played 40 minutes a piece.
“Ryle is real quick and strong up front,” Kearns said. “It is tough to get a win on the road against them. It was a good group effort on defense. Anytime you have a shutout, lots of things have to happen.”
Highlands continues action Mondy at home against St. Henry. Game time is 7:30 p.m.