The Covington Catholic Colonels claimed the first-ever boys soccer state championship for Northern Kentucky with a 3-0 blanking of the Lexington Henry Clay Blue Devils in the championship game. Eight other teams from Boone, Kenton and Campbell Counties had previously made the title game before losing including the 2008 Highlands squad led by players like Dakota Beerman and Jason Lewis.
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The tough pill to swallow is the Bluebirds had a chance to beat the Colonels in the 9th Region quarterfinals. Highlands (9-11-3 last year) and CovCath (24-2-2) remained tied at 1-1 after regulation and two overtime sessions. But the Colonels edged the Bluebirds, 4-3 in a best-of-five penalty kicks on their way to the state championship. CovCath also beat Ryle on penalty kicks in the 9th Region title game.
That is why Winkler and staff try to have the Bluebirds playing their best soccer in the postseason. They lost to Newport Central Catholic, 2-1 in the 36th District championship before losing in the region quarterfinals.
"This makes the guys have big hearts for what they want to do and what they want to accomplish," Winkler said. "Having CovCath bring home a Northern Kentucky state championship has kind of of ignited a little more of the fire underneath our school particularly because of the competitive nature we have with CovCath. We know we can do the same too. We just have to execute in October and put it all together."
Highlands ranks among the all-time best in Kentucky history with a record of 383-229-41 overall including a 70-52-15 mark since Winkler's first season as head coach in 2010. Starting in 2010, Highlands owns two district and two region championships to go with two elite eight finishes.
The best thing the program has going is depth. Whenever a nice-sized senior group graduates, another nice-sized group is ready to take over. Highlands graduated nine seniors from last year in Brady Gesenhues, Ben Schweitzer, Ben Seiter, Ben Workman, Evan Ling, Jason Schreiber, Jasper Noble, Mark Baron and Noah Sellers.
"It's just tradition here at Highlands," Winker said. "The feeder teams that feed us, our freshman program and JV program are super competitive. They're developing the athletes appropriately for when hit the varsity spectrum. Up top when we get them on the varsity, they're coachable and great to work with. We can build the mix we want to have a great season."
Highlands outscored the opposition, 55-42 last year. Gesenhues and Senior forward/midfielder Ethan Mills led the Bluebirds with 14 goals each last year with Mills and junior midfielder Nick Gish recording a team-high five assists each. Up top, seniors Solomon Farris, Collin Ginter and Brandon Zachary are looking to complement Mills. The team has 11 seniors this year to go with five juniors and two sophomores.
"I believe this team compared to last year has a ton more chemistry," Gish said. "We all have played together for a long time. I feel like we know where each other is on the field at all time and know what they want to do with the ball. I feel that will help us go further in the tournament."
Highlands has played a lot of the 4-4-2 (defender-midfielder-forward) set in the past. Winkler said the Bluebirds have the personnel to do that again. Winkler agrees that spacing is a huge key to success on the soccer field.
"It's huge. Each Highlands team is a unique mix," Winkler said. "When we pull them together for the fall season, it's some of the toughest responsibilities that we have. Some of the guys have played on different club teams and we have to bring them back together to play for Highlands. The talent is definitely here. They're awesome kids. It's our job to put the right mix together to get us the furthest in the postseason."
That spacing and attack often starts with winning the 50/50 balls at midfield. Hoping to contribute at midfield are seniors Aaron Williams, Colton Dolezal (formerly Wagoner), Tommy Browe, juniors Alan Ford, Drew Rom and Gish.
Senior Parker Smith leads the Highlands defenders. Senior Tommy Steppe and sophomores Alex Ford and Devin Harris will look to make a difference in the back protecting senior goalkeepers Simon Frink and Paul Tully. Highlands had six shutouts last season defensively.
"We have to keep a good line," Smith said. "We have some new guys playing in the back. They're younger guys but they're fast and strong. I think we'll have a solid defense this year. As long as we play strong, are aware of where each other and communicate, we'll be strong."
Winkler and the players have talked about the importance of conditioning in the past and he said it will be just as important this year. Some players go hard with few breaks for 90 minutes without coming out.
" It's better where we're at this year than where we've been in years in the past," Winkler said. "But we have to make sure we continue to push that level even higher and not just be satisfied with where we're at and the boys understand and they're more apt to put that on themselves more so than us having to push that to them."
Highlands hits the road to open the season Tuesday. The Bluebirds travel to Union to face the Cooper Jaguars in a 9th Region contest at 7:30 p.m.