ERLANGER - The refs let both teams play for the most part and it turned into a physical girls soccer match.
No one appeared to get seriously hurt. But the Notre Dame Pandas (16-8 overall) used it to beat the Highlands Ladybirds, 1-0 in the 9th Region semifinals Wednesday at St. Henry. It marked the third straight year Notre Dame has eliminated Highlands (15-9) from the 9th Region Tournament and fourth time in five years including the semifinals the last two years.
Both teams employed 4-3-3 (defender-forward-midfielder) strategies. Notre Dame outshot Highlands, 22-8 including 12-7 on goal.
"We were not ready for that type of physicality," said Brian Wiefering, Highlands Head Coach. "It was tough to adjust to that physicality. We probably should have been ready for that type of physicality. When they put one in, it put us on our heels."
Highlands drew 15 fouls and one yellow card and Notre Dame had nine fouls. The tough part for Highlands is players seemed to be shoved while making a move in the attacking box but could not draw any penalty kicks. Notre Dame did double and triple freshman Lindsey Meyer in the attacking zone.
"Lindsey is so skilled with the ball," Wiefering said. "When she doesn't finish, she's usually going to draw the (penalty kick). She probably should have drawn two PKs, but the refs didn't see it or see it that way. Unfortunately, the calls didn't go our way."
But Highlands goalkeepers Shannon Eaton and Olivia McQueary helped give Highlands a chance. Eaton made three saves in the first half and McQueary made seven in the second half.
Aubrey Nienaber had a great game between the pipes for the Pandas making seven saves. This marked the 10 shutout of the season for the Pandas and just the fourth time Highlands has been shutout this year.
The only goal of the game came just 4:43 into the contest on a fluke. Notre Dame hit one into the attacking zone and Eaton tried to boot it out. But Panda senior striker Taylor Watts headed it off the top of Eaton's head before the collided and it rolled into the goal.
Highlands withstood five Notre Dame corner kicks. But the Ladybirds had just two the entire match.
The Ladybirds still garnered the most wins since the 2008 state runner-up squad. Highlands has won 27 games in Weifering's two seasons as head coach. The Ladybirds won just 19 games the previous three seasons since their last region championship in 2010.
"If you didn't know who was a senior and who was a freshman, you wouldn't know that if you came to one of our practices," Wiefering said. "They allow the freshmen and sophomores to feel special. They let them have the confidence on the field and off the field. It's awesome. I told the seniors they've set a precedent for teams from this season out. That's the most special gift they gave this program."
Highlands graduates six seniors. They are Madalyn Wiefering, Megan Reynolds, Lauren Ossege, Hayley Crothers, Ellie Farley and Kylie Schuermann.
"I'm so proud of my team for everything it's accomplished," Madalyn Wiefering said. "The seniors are some of the best people I've played with. We became a family out there and I love all of them."
The second semifinal saw an upset as Boone County beat Newport Central Catholic, 2-1. The Lady Breds won the All "A" State Tournament earlier in the year.
Newport Central Catholic 3, Highlands 0:
Highlands (17-18) once again finished runner-up to the Thoroughbreds in the 36th District championship. The Ladybirds have dropped 21 of the last 22 meetings to the Thoroughbreds. The only Highlands win during that span came in the 2012 district championship game.
Highlands lost the first two games, 25-21, 25-15. The Ladybirds led 20-15 at one point in the third game before NewCath came back to win 25-23.
"When we fought back and tied things up, we wouldn't seal the deal," said Katelyn Sallee, Highlands Head Coach. "We had opportunities to do that in every set except the second set. We just wouldn't seal the deal. What we focused on all night was not running away and playing cat and mouse with them."
Lauren Epperson once again led Highlands with 10 kills and 19 digs. Anna Marie Houliston and Malorie Hegge had five and four kills for the Ladybirds. Izzy Schultz had two aces for the Ladybirds with Emma Little recording 11 digs. Hegge and Little made the all-tournament team for Highlands.
Highlands faces the daunting task of facing a region power in the 9th Quarterfinals at Ryle. Notre Dame has eliminated the Ladybirds the last two years.
"Some of its size, power and experience," Sallee said of catching the region powers. "We're building a program. We're building a culture some of these schools have had for 10 years. Any team can win on any given night. But some of that culture helps. We're not shying away from any opponent. We're going in and giving it our all."
Highlands has made the state tournament once in school history. That came in 2004 when the Ladybirds won the old 10th Region. They lost to the state quarterfinals to eventual state champion
Louisville Assumption after beating Owensboro Apollo to open the tournament.