By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds boys soccer team has put together some good soccer during this impressive tournament run.
The Bluebirds (17-7-1) may need to play their greatest game of the year to advance to the state semifinals for just the second time in school history. Highlands faces the top-ranked Lexington Paul Dunbar Bulldogs (23-1-2) at Noon on Saturday at Lexington Henry Clay in the state quarterfinals.
“We’ll gladly go in as the underdog,” said Matthew Winkler, Highlands Head Coach. “We’ll prepare the rest of the week for that match. We played them in a scrimmage so we’ve seen them a little bit. We’ll do our work and be prepared for them.”
Dunbar came into the season ranked sixth in the state with an all-time record of 376-140-27 and Highlands was 12th at 348-201-32. The Bulldogs and veteran Head Coach Todd Bretz own three state championships and finished last year as runner-up, 1-0 to 12-time state champion Louisville St. Xavier.
“We have a group of players that are unselfish and play well together,” Bretz said. “They are a great group of young men who are a joy to be around and enjoy being around each other. Practice is something we look forward to every day.”
The Bluebirds last made it this far in 2010 during Winkler’s first season as Head Coach. They lost 3-1 to Scott. They’d beaten Pendleton County (3-0) in the same round in 2008 prior to beating Henderson County (2-0) in the semifinals and losing to St. Xavier (7-2) in the title game.
Highlands has put together a run of four straight shutouts in the postseason including a 1-0 win at West Jessamine in Monday’s first-round contest and Saturday’s 1-0 9th Region title game win over Newport Central Catholic. That marked the fifth regional title in school history and fourth since 2006.
Dunbar has outscored the opposition, 103-20 on the season compared to 68-30 for Highlands. The Bulldogs are 18-0-2 against teams from Kentucky. The only loss for the Bulldogs came to Fort Zumwalt (Missouri) South in the Gateway Classic in St. Louis on Oct. 4.
“We lost (the scrimmage) 3-1,” said Jimmy Penrod, Highlands senior defender. “It was quite the experience having them the first (scrimmage).”
Dunbar knocked off Bishop Brossart, 4-2 on Monday to make it to this point. Senior Riley Calhoun had three assists and a goal in that game for the Bulldogs.
Senior Chris Garbig leads the Bluebirds with 16 goals and is tied with Jordan Jarvis for a team-high nine assists. Teammate Colin Dean follows with 10 goals and eight assists.
Highlands plays a 4-5-1 (defender-forward-midfielder) attack and plays two goalkeepers. Junior Nick Breslin often plays the first half and Nathan Tippenhauer the second.
“That (scrimmage) was a long time ago and at the beginning of the season so you can’t put stock in it,” Bretz said. “Highlands is playing great soccer and winning big in tough games. They (Bluebirds) are coming into the game battle-tested and confident.”
The Bluebirds do not have to adjust to a different type of field in this game. Henry Clay’s field is turf just like Tower Park. Highlands played on a grass field at West Jessamine.
The semifinals take place at Dunbar on Wednesday at 6 and 8 p.m. The championship game is a week from Saturday back at Dunbar. No team from Northern Kentucky has ever won the state championship.