By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
CRESTVIEW HILLS – The Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team knew it had to match the intensity and determination of its arch-rivals to move on.
The Bluebirds played hard, but could not figure out the Notre Dame Panada defense or recover from an early momentum swing in a 3-0 9th Region championship loss Saturday. Highlands has lost to Notre Dame in its last two region title game appearances.
“We want to be playing our best soccer at the end of the year. I think we were,” said Tommy Kearns, Highlands Head Coach. “It’s a credit to the way the girls worked all season. They came out on July 15 and set a goal to be in this game. We achieved that goal.”
The two consistently battled for region titles in the old 10th Region. Notre Dame won the 2011 meeting after Highlands won in 2010. The Pandas (20-2-3) won the championship in 2011 and finished state runner-up last year.
Highlands (8-8-5) bounced back from a three-win season last year. The Bluebirds lost to Dixie Heights in the region quarterfinals on penalty kicks.
“I really think it was important that we came back from last year and got as far as we did because it took a lot of hard and a lot of hope because we weren’t sure we’d be able to pull it off,” said Alyssa Farley, Highlands senior midfielder/defender. “I’m proud of what we did as a team.”
The Bluebirds managed just six shots with five coming on goal mostly on forward passes. They had a hard time getting the ball past the Panda defenders. Notre Dame goalkeepers Courtney Hansel and Maddy Kim combined to make four saves.
“I think our forwards did a great job applying pressure up top,” Kearns said. “Getting pressure all over the field against Notre Dame is tough because they pass it so quick. We were hoping for a better result. Credit Notre Dame. (Notre Dame)was outstanding (Saturday) and deserved to win.”
The closest Highlands came to scoring came in the second half. Highlands sophomore forward Brooklynn Rivers drew a penalty to the left outside the attacking box. Her free kick went wide.
“We’re so proud of our defense,” said Sara McSorely, Notre Dame Head Coach. “(The defenders) have been strong all year long. When they’re getting tested more and more, they’re coming through. We’ve been really pleased with how they’ve answered those challenges.”
The Pandas finished with 20 shots including 18 on goal. Highlands senior goalkeeper Sarah Owen made 13 saves.
Notre Dame scored all three of its goals in the first half. Tournament most Valuable Player Ellen Combs took a pass in the middle from Carissa Dyer and scored. Dyer scored minutes later to make it 2-0 Pandas.
McSorely said the third and final goal was huge for momentum purposes. Mandy Arnzen scored it for Notre Dame.
Lauren Daly, Kelsey Etherton and Rivers made the All-Tournament team for Highlands along with Newport Central Catholic’s Loren Zimmerman and Sam Bunzel. Daly scored the game-winner in overtime in the semifinals against Ryle.
The Bluebirds graduate eight seniors. They are Owen, Daly, Farley, Etherton, Anna Bardgett, McKenzie Goyert, Kristin Venneman and Ellie New.
Junior Lydia Graves may take over at goalkeeper for Highlands. The Bluebirds can also build around Rivers, Taylor Vaughn, Allyson Bridewell, Peyton Bankemper and Brooke Dougherty among others.
“We’re just going to keep on working as a team and creating chances up top,” Vaughn said. “I think we’ll have a lot of younger people step up. I think next year, we’re going to be even better. We’ll take full advantage of our home field.”
The teams split during the regular season. Notre Dame won at Tower Park by the same score on Aug. 29. But the Bluebirds beat the Pandas, 3-2 on Sept. 18 in the semifinals of the Lexington Catholic Cup. They were the only team in the region to beat Notre Dame this year.