|Ladybirds hope to continue climb up mountain|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior midfielder Kiersten Clukey (15) plays the ball in a game at Notre Dame last season. Clukey is one of seven seniors on the squad.|
The Highlands Ladybirds soccer team has gone 27-18-1 in Brian Wiefering's two season's as head coach with two straight appearances in the 9th Region semifinals and a 36th District championship. The 12-9-1 mark in 2014 saw Highlands record double-digit wins for the first time since the last time Highlands won a region championship in 2010 and the 15-9 campaign last year marked the highest win total since the 2008 state runner-up squad posted 18 victories.
"It's been fun," Wiefering said. "This week is what I call our skills week. There's a vision I had for this program. I told the girls (Monday) at practice watching them scrimmage and using the dribbling skills that we've worked on for the past so many years, I felt like (Monday) that vision has taken place. I told them at the end of practice I had goosebumps. It was incredible to watch. They're so comfortable with the ball on the field."
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Now Highlands hopes to take the next step in returning to the dominant teams between 2005 and 2008 when the Ladybirds went 80-11-11 with two state championships. That step is beating the arch-rival and five-time defending region champion Notre Dame Pandas and the Newport Central Catholic Lady Breds.
Highlands beat Notre Dame, 3-1 in Park Hills during the regular season. But the Pandas came back to win the region semifinal contest, 1-0 eliminating the Ladybirds in that round for the second straight season. Notre Dame has eliminated Highlands four times in the past five seasons including the 10th Region championship game in 2011 and the 2013 9th Region championship game. Highlands also lost to NewCath in both the regular season and 36th District championship game last year.
Wiefering said Highlands likes to play more of a finesse style of soccer as opposed to physical. Notre Dame played physical soccer in that semifinal game on its way to another state tournament appearance.
"Highlands can be physical when it needs to," Wiefering said. "I felt like Notre Dame did a great job of coming out and saying we're going to win this by being very physical. That probably wasn't the game to come back and try to be as physical with them. Our game is a little different than that. We're going to try to not get sucked into other teams' game plan."
A high number of players continue to come out for Highlands. The Ladybirds graduated six seniors in Megan Reynolds, Madelyn Wiefering, Ellie Farley, Kylie Schuermann, Hayley Crothers and Lauren Ossege. In addition, sophomore standout Haley Dougherty transferred to Simon Kenton and defender Annie Schneider is not back for her senior season.
But Highlands has seven seniors ready to take over the leadership role. They are goalkeeper Shannon Eaton, midfielders Kiersten Clukey, Claudia Hils, midfielder/forwared Sydney Ossege, defenders Karolyn Lukjan and Annalee Brewer. The other returning senior is Kayla Nehus, but she's out for the season because of injuries
"I think as a fourth-year varsity player that it's very important, especially where I play in the midfield," Clukey said of leadership. "We have some second-year varsity players and we all just gel well together. I think it helps bring the team up because we're so experienced. Communication will be key for our team because I feel like we've always had the most potential for our region, but we've never gotten it done when we needed to and that was because of a lack of communication. But this year with our seven seniors, I feel like we're going to step up and make a difference for Highlands High School."
Highlands posted 12 shutouts last year outscoring opponents, 68-24. That improved drastically from 2014 when the Ladybirds outscored the opposition, 42-30 with nine shutouts.
That starts with the defenders. Other defenders hoping to contribute after Brewer and Lukjan are juniors Lily Lorenz, Isabella Thomas, Sophie Steppe, sophomores Hannah Gish, Hannah Hartman and Gwen Gorman. Freshman Maria Broering could also play defense or a forward position.
"I think our defenders are strong this year," Brewer said. "We lost a couple good seniors last year. But we have a lot of younger girls, especially sophomores, who are really strong this year. I think the main key for the back line this year is not mixing up playing hard with playing smart because if we get in our heads and mess up, we'll give up (cheap) goals and things like that. But I think if we communicate, stay organized and stay compact in the back, nobody should score on us."
Eaton and junior Olivia McQueary have split games at goalkeeper the last two seasons and will do the same this year. Eaton often played the first half last year before McQueary took over in the second half.
The Highlands offense and defense starts with winning 50/50 balls in the middle. Clukey has done well with that the past two years. Others hoping to help there after Clukey, Hils and possibly Lauren Ossege are juniors Molly Wiefering, Kaitlyn Meyer, Kylie Stava, sophomore Gwendolyn Culyer, freshmen Lauren Deckert, Tatum Price, Parker Price and Abby Stine.
Offensively, Highlands hopes to build around sophomore standout scorer Lindsey Meyer. She scored 44 points last year with 17 goals and 10 assists. Clukey tied her with 10 assists. At that pace, Meyer could find herself at the top of the Highlands career scoring list by the time her career ends. The school record-holder and current assistant Stephanie Sandfoss-Graves scored 64 goals and recorded 39 assists in her career for a total of 167 points.
"I am proud that some of the upperclassmen came in a lot better physical shape than they were last year," Coach Wiefering said. "They all played well last year and had a great season. If teams decide just to concentrate on Lindsey, it's just going to open it up for some other players who know how to put the ball in the back of the net."
Stava could also play forward in addition to Ossege. Freshmen Maria Wiefering and Aly Gessner could also see time there. Highlands saw 17 different players score and 11 record at least one assist last year.
Coach Wiefering loaded up the schedule. The Ladybirds take on defending state champion Louisville Sacred Heart to open the annual Lexington Catholic Cup. They also take on Greater Catholic League schools Cincinnati Ursuline, Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame, Cincinnati St. Ursula, defending 12th Region runner-up West Jessamine in addition to the Pandas.
"When I put the schedule together, I wanted to be ready for teams that are at the level of Notre Dame," Coach Wiefering said. "The only way to do that is play teams comparable to them. If anyone claims they have a tougher schedule than what we're playing this year, I'd like to see that schedule. I think the girls can compete with that schedule and it's going to get them ready for the postseason."
Highlands opens its schedule on Aug. 20 in Owensboro. The Ladybirds take on the defending 3rd Region champion and 2015 state semifinalist Owensboro Catholic Lady Aces at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.