By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
UNION – The winner of the rubber match of this great boys soccer rivalry moved on to state, pure and simple.
That’s why it was an even more intense, physical game you’d expect between two teams fighting to keep their seasons alive. In the end, the Highlands Bluebirds pulled out the 1-0 overtime win over the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds to claim the 9th Region Championship on Saturday at Ryle.
Highlands senior and tournament most valuable player Mitch Gesenhues scored the game’s lone goal about a minute into overtime. Fellow senior Cole Davis-Roberts booted a free kick into the attacking zone. The ball rolled to the left of the goal where Gesenhues booted it past Newport Central Catholic goalkeeper Paul Grosser setting off a huge Highlands celebration and leaving the NewCath players stunned.
“Cole played a great ball that hit the ground and bounced over two defenders,” Gesnhues said. “I was there past my defender that was guarding me and I just put it in the back of the net. We knew we had to get the ball inside the boxes. If we tried to shoot outside the box, it was really hard to get it past (Grosser). But we got inside the box and found the back of the net.”
That marked the sixth goal of the year for Gesenhues and fifth assist for Davis-Roberts. Fellow senior Chris Garbig leads the Bluebirds with 15 goals and is tied with Jordan Jarvis with a team-high nine assists.
“It’s honestly about making a ball dangerous,” Davis-Roberts said. “You have to get it up high, make a defense misjudge it and hope for the best. Luckily, we have guys like Mitch who are willing to put their bodies on the line and finish. The scrappy goals count so we’ll take it.”
The Gesenhues goal meant the goal did not have to go to penalty kicks. Grosser denied three penalty kicks in NewCath’s semifinal win over Covington Catholic.
“He’s a big guy,” said Matthew Winkler, Highlands Head Coach of Grosser. “He’s not one you’d really want to stand your guys up against to (do penalty kicks). But we were prepared for that. We trained hard on that (Friday) just to make sure that we were ready for that.”
The Bluebirds (16-7-1) travel just south of Lexington to face the 12th Region champion West Jessamine Colts (14-8-2). The Colts upset region favorite Boyle County (17-5-5), 2-1 in Danville on Saturday and ended a 15-game Rebel winning streak.
“I’m excited for them,” Winkler said. “They played hard and did the job exactly as we have been training and working for all season. We have played (NCC) three times and it has been a bang-bang match for three straight games. I can’t pick a better opponent to play against.”
NewCath allowed just 25 goals all season. That was fewest in the region.
“Anytime you bring a battle between us and Highlands, the kids are going to leave it on the field,” said Mike McDonald, NewCath Head Coach. “They took advantage of the one mistake we made in the backfield. We were defensively solid the entire game. In overtime, I don’t know if we were tired or what. That’s the way the game goes.”
West Jessamine has outscored the competition just 35-29. The Colts have only scored more than two goals in a game three times all season. They tied visiting NewCath on Aug. 24, 0-0.
That marked the first region championship for the Bluebirds (16-7-1) since 2010. They beat Campbell County, 2-0 in the 10th Region title game that year in Winkler’s first season as head coach. The Bluebirds went on to beat Russell, 4-0 in the first round of the state tournament before losing 3-1 to Scott in the state quarterfinals. Highlands finished state runner-up in 2008.
On the other side, Newport Central Catholic (14-5-1) lost in the 9th title game for the second year in a row. Boone County beat the Thoroughbreds, 2-0 in last year’s title game at St. Henry. The Thoroughbreds have appeared in three straight region title games winning the 10th in 2011, 2-1 over Covington Catholic before losing 1-0 to Montgomery County in the first round of the state tournament.
The two squads split during the regular season. The Bluebirds won the season-opener for both teams, 2-1 on Aug. 20 at Tower Park. But the Thoroughbreds came back and won the 36th District championship by the same score on Oct. 15.
The Bluebirds are 13-2-2 against the Thoroughbreds since 2004. Both Thoroughbred wins have come in the most recent 36th District title games.
NewCath outshot Highlands, 22-13 including 17-6 on goal. Grosser made three saves while Nick Breslin made six in the first half and Nathan Tippenhauer had 10 in the second for the Bluebirds. Highlands employed a 4-5-1 (defender-midfielder-forward) attack and NewCath ran a 4-4-2 set.
“We almost dominated the first half,” McDonald said. “In the second half, it was pretty evenly matched. If you leave another good team in the game that long, they’re going to do something eventually.”
Breslin and Tippenhauer made a couple big saves each off NewCath corner and free kicks to preserve the shutout. The Bluebirds have allowed just 30 goals all season and own nine shutouts. They outscored their three region tournament opponents, 9-0 recording a pair of 4-0 wins over Ryle and Dixie Heights to start the tournament.
Davis-Roberts said the coaching staff moved Devin Dupont to the back line to mark the opposing team’s leading scorer. Dupont made sure NewCath’s leading scorer in Matt Tolle did not get off a clean shot. Tolle scored a team-high 13 goals for the Thoroughbreds.
The teams combined for five yellow cards in the physical contest. But no one was ejected.
“(It takes) lots of patience for them,” Winkler said. “We know they play and they know how we play. We knew it was going to be a dogfight through the end. Sometimes it gets a little chippy and that’s soccer. But overall, it was a fun night for them.”
Highlands has faced two teams in the state tournament and won both games. The Bluebirds beat 11th Region champion Bishop Brossart, 2-1 at Tower Park on Oct. 2 and 2nd Region champion Henderson County, 4-3 on Sept. 14 at Ryle. Highlands and Bishop Brossart could meet again on Nov. 2 at Lexington Henry Clay if both teams win their first-round games.
But Bishop Brossart will have to beat top-ranked 22-1-2 Lexington Paul Dunbar for that to happen. The lone Bulldog loss came to Fort Zumwalt (Missouri) South in the Gateway Classic in St.Louis on Oct. 4.
Dupont, Davis-Roberts and Noah Sellers joined Gesenhues on the all-tournament team for Highlands. Grosser, Nick Huseman and Ben Tierney made it for NewCath.
The Thoroughbreds graduate nine seniors. They are Tolle, Jonathan Murrin, Gualt Nolan, Huseman, Connor Hanneken, Seth Martin, Jordan Johnston, Tierney and Evan Brannon.