|Contributed Photo. Highlands' Jenna Klingenberg-Stewart (left) and Rachel Redmond-Stahlhut (center) celebrate after winning the 2005 state soccer championship. Stahlhut kicked the game-winning penalty kick against Lexington Catholic.|
It takes one class to set the standard.
Then another one hopes to set it even higher. That's what the Class of 2007 accomplished as members of the back-to-back 2005 and 2006 Highlands Ladybirds state championship soccer teams. Those teams finished a combined 45-3-3 and recorded 20 shutouts each season, which is still a state record.
At that point, only South Oldham and Louisville Male had won consecutive crowns. South Oldham won consecutive titles in 1995 and 1996 before winning four in a row between 1998 and 2001.
Louisville Sacred Heart would win it three straight years after that run. But Highlands is still one of just five programs that has two or more championships in a state that has just one champion.
Sydney Hiance, Alicia Browning-Gesenhues and Megan Leahy started on both teams. Their names are still all over the school record books. The 2005 state championship team finished a school-best 24-2. Those 24 wins are three wins shy of the state record. Three teams have won 27 games in a season including Owensboro Catholic last fall.
"We had a lot of returning players along with some new additions (in 2005)," Hiance said. "We set goals and went for them. It was not an option to not win it the second year. It was what we were planning on doing. It was pretty awesome."
Gesenhues stands second in school history with 135 career points on 58 goals and 19 assists. Leahy is fourth with 40 goals and 24 assists for a total of 104 points. Current Highlands assistant Stephanie Sandfoss-Graves is the school's all-time leading scorer with 64 goals and 39 assists for 167 points with Ashley Twehues-Thomas ranking third with 48 goals and 34 assists for 130 points. They are the lone four with 104 or more points in school history.
Leahy said the end of 2004 set the stage for those two years. Highlands lost 6-2 to eventual state champion Notre Dame in the 10th Region title game that year. That was the senior season of Leahy's older sister Erin Leahy-Lucas. But only Sacred Heart in a 2-0 win on Sept. 20, 2005 in the Lexington Catholic Cup and host Bishop Brossart on Aug. 21 in an 8-3 loss scored more than two goals on Highlands in both seasons.
"That was the worst way to go out," Leahy said of the 2004 campaign. "Then coming back and winning it the two years after was awesome."
Those three plus Rachel Redmond-Stahlhut and Jenna Klingenberg-Stewart played soccer together at young ages. Stewart said that helped develop strong bonds. Browning-Gesenhues married high school sweetheart and 2005 Highlands graduate Jim Gesenhues on June 20. Stewart and Leahy were in the wedding.
"We were always lucky enough to have chemistry both on and off the field," Stewart said. "Through the years, that friendship has tranformed into something greater. We supported each other on the bad days and cheered each other on during the good. Those friendships don't disappear overnight and I am lucky to still call some of these girls my best friends."
Highlands played tough defense both years. The Ladybirds outscored opponents 62-7 in 2005 and 64-7 in 2006. Hiance is credited with the most shutouts in a season in state history with 20 in each season and 53 for her career, which ranks second in state history behind 56 of former South Oldham goalkeeper Melissa Barnes.
Leahy and Gesenhues scored 12 goals each to lead Highlands in 2005. Browning led Highlands with 15 goals in 2006. Leahy finished third in 2006 with eight goals and first on the team with 11 assists. The two were tough when had a wide-open look at the net.
"I definitely learned that teamwork is not just on the field as I've gotten older and gotten wiser," Gesenhues said. "In healthcare, everything is a team focus. I was very fortunate to not only be a part of a team, but a strong, diverse team in high school. It gave us a positive experience because we were so successful. You build on it and know it's achievable. I learned good camaraderie early."
Gesenhues admitted she sometimes stepped between Leahy and an opponent. But Leahy said the experiences have helped her in the marketing world.
"During the season, you get so close to the girls," Leahy said. "I knew going into my junior year that we were going to be really good. We were. Everybody jived well. The next year, we weren't sure we could do it again. Everyone wanted to win for each other. It's something we still talk about today."
It can be tough beating teams you are familiar, especially after you play them multiple times during the season. Highlands played Notre Dame and Newport Central Catholic three times in 2005. The Ladybirds beat the Pandas all three times and went 2-1 against the Lady Breds losing 1-0 in the 19th District championship game. But Highlands came back to beat NewCath in a shootout in the 10th Region title game.
Highlands played those teams twice in 2006. The Ladybirds beat NewCath, 2-0 in the regular season that year but suffered their only loss of the regular season, 1-0 at Notre Dame. However, Highlands beat NewCath, 2-1 in overtime to win the 19th District and Notre Dame, 1-0 in a shootout to capture the 10th Region crown.
But the toughest part for players can be going against your good friends. Gesenhues faced off against Amie Weckenbrock-Taphouse when Highlands played Notre Dame. Taphouse often had to guard Gesenhues. Taphouse is currently an assistant at Beechwood.
"Having practiced with her for years, I was at a little advantage knowing how (Gesenhues) would play," Taphouse said. "She was always really good at using her body. You just didn't want to let her get the ball. That was your best defense. Once she had it, she was extremely dangerous."
Both went on to play NCAA Division I soccer. Gesenhues played at the University of Kentucky for three years while Taphouse went to Morehead State University.
"It's one of the hardest things because stepping onto the field, it's a whole different mindset," Gesenhues said of facing Taphouse. "They're not your friend anymore. I know I'm ultra-competitive so that doesn't help. They're the enemy. I want to win and she wants to win. The hard part is when you step off the field to get back into the mindset of, 'Hey, it's normal life. They're your friend again regardless of the outcome.' I never had a problem because I was ready to win."
In the Highlands Class of 2007's four years of high school, the Ladybirds went 5-2-1 against the Pandas. Highlands won the lone 2003 meeting, 1-0.
"I think it was something we always looked forward to," Taphouse said of facing Highlands. "We knew it was always going to be a really big game. For me, it was extra fun and extra nerve-racking at times because I was playing against one of my best friends and I know how good they were and how hard they worked. It was always a good test in the middle of the season to see where our skills were."
The loss to NewCath in the 2005 19th District championship game was the only time any opponent scored on Highlands in the postseason. In the state tournament, Highlands took care of Ryle, 1-0 before beating Bourbon County and Greenwood by 3-0 scores. But the Ladybirds had to go to penalty kicks to beat Lexington Catholic, 1-0 in the state championship.
That's where Stahlhut came up big. She hit the game-winning penalty kick after not playing one minute in the postseason on a deep team.
"It definitely is a big mental thing taking penalty kicks," Stahlhut said. "We practiced them all the time, especially at the end of practice leading up to the tournament. Tommy (Kearns) was very proactive about that because he said these games are going to come down to a tie and you will have to do them. We need to be ready. I knew when it hit my foot that it was going in."
Caitlin Beck, Leahy, Hiance and Natalie Turner hit their kicks before Stahlhut made her attempt. Highlands won the best-of-five kicks, 5-4.
"In selecting penalty kicks when we go into a shoot-out, it's not the ideal way to end a soccer game after playing more than 100 minutes of soccer and having to just kick the ball at the goal, but we'd significantly practiced penalty kicks knowing that there's always that potential and possibility," said Nina Kearns, who was the Highlands head coach at the time. "I did not know Rachel was going to be the last kicker. The way it happened is we went through our first series of (five) kickers, then when you're still tied, you go to sudden death. You have to pick another compliment of kickers. But whoever makes one vs. missing one, it's over with. She ended up being the last one but was the first kicker of the second round. I've always asked the girls, 'Who wants that moment?' You have to have someone who's mentally ready for it. Watching her in practice, I knew she absolutely had the skill and ability, was mentally tough and could perform. Even though she had not been on the field for us, I knew she could complete the game for us essentially and stand up for her team."
The players have different memories of the win. Hiance had a great recollection.
"There was a funny picture," Hiance said. "I literally jumped. It was like, 'Holy Crap. We just won.' There was a big pile. It's not something like I've ever felt since then. It was pretty awesome."
The penalty kick gave Stahlhut a lot of confidence for the rest of her life. She's currently a registered nurse at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
"I'm more capable than what people allow me to be," Stahlhut said. "I think especially when I volunteered. I came off the bench cold. You could tell Nina was kind of nervous about putting me down on that list. She had to because she told us it was a voluntary thing. It showed people more of my personality. I came out and people gave me more credit."
Stewart and Stahlhut decided not to return their senior years. But Stewart's husband Jared recalled those years with fond memories. He also graduated in 2007.
"I would say the atmosphere was similar to any other state championship we've experienced - excitement the whole postseason just knowing the possibility of making it to the championship game, excitement the whole week leading up to the game, and then packing in the car with friends and heading down to Georgetown," Jared Stewart said. "It was definitely a cool experience to get to be in school for both of them."
But Leahy, Gesenhues and Hiance in addition to some younger players picked up the leadership roles well for the nine graduated seniors of 2005. Highlands came back to the championship game a year later and found itself in a similar spot late in the game in a scoreless tie against Sacred Heart. Like the previous year with Karly Hassman-Maines, Highlands rallied around a senior who tore her Anterior Cruciated Ligament. It happened to Gesenhues late in the title game.
"Alicia's injury was catastrophic," Kearns said. "She ended up having to have knee surgery and luckily, went on to play at UK. But as one of our leading scorers in a game that's neck-and-neck, it's never what you want to see happen. When Alicia went down in that state final game and we knew she wasn't going to be returning and how bad the injury was, I really didn't have to say much. Those girls were so tight and such good friends on and off the field. They were not going to let that injury end our season in a very negative way. They wanted to rally around her and for all she had put into it and end up with the state championship, which they did."
Highlands did it with The Trackdown. Leahy took the ball up the left side and dumped it into the right attacking zone when two Valkyries converged on her. Stephie Newman-Durbin hustled to get the ball and booted it toward the goal. Amber Barth-Wells headed it the ball to her left into the goal with exactly 1:01 left in the game to give Highlands the 1-0 win.
Where are the Highlands Girls Soccer
Class of 2007 Seniors Now?
- Account Manager at Schneider Electric.
- played goalkeeper at the University of
Kentucky for four seasons.
- recently signed to be the men's goalkeeper
coach for Cincinnati Christian University.
- recently married high school sweetheart
and 2005 Highlands alum Jim Gesenhues.
- recently completed PharmD Degree through the
University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy
and is currently a Pharmacy resident at Cincinnati
Children's Medical Center.
- lives in West Chester (Ohio) and works
for ePromos Productional Products.
- engaged to 2002 Cincinnati Moeller alum
and freshman soccer coach Mike Welker.
- recently married high school sweetheart
and fellow 2007 alum Jarred Stalhut.
- Nurse at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
- recently graduated from the University
of Louisville Dental Hygiene School.
- married to high school sweetheart
and 2007 Highlands alum Jared Stewart
- the couple will be relocating to Colorado
Springs on Aug. 1.