But the Highlands Bluebirds soccer team had to again prove it against the arch-rival Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds at Tower Park on Tuesday. The Bluebirds (17-2-2 overall) did that by the same 1-0 score that they beat the Thoroughbreds (14-8) during the regular season on Sept. 22 at the same location.
The Bluebirds claimed their 17th district championship in school history, second in three seasons and third since Matthew Winkler became head coach in 2010. Highlands and NewCath have automatically advanced to the 9th Region Tournament for five years in a row after the Kentucky High School Athletic Association reconfigured the districts to look more like the basketball set-up in 2012.
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"This is what we've built for all year," Winkler said. "That's to execute during the post-season. (Tuesday) was a good first round of that. We executed the way we wanted to and played hard."
Highlands again used its speed to control the game with a ball-possession style attack. The Bluebirds took 31 shots to just four for the Thoroughbreds including a 12-2 advantage on goal. Highlands senior goalkeepers Paul Tully and Simon Frink combined for the team's 15th shut-out of the season. Frink made two saves and Tully did not have to make any.
"The best thing (defenders do) is stepping to the ball when the offense makes an attempt to make a shot," Frink said. "You can tell by their body language when the defender steps to the ball so they can't get the shot off. It makes it easier to predict where the ball is going to go next or just completely stop the shot."
Highlands had a hard time finishing on NewCath senior goalkeeper Joel Grosser. Grosser had a great game making 11 saves using his frame.
But Bluebird senior Colton Dolezal put one where Grosser could not reach it in an unconventional way. He curved the ball into the upper left side of the goal with 23:32 left in the first half for his ninth goal of the season.
Logan Muck and Eddie Schultz entered the game leading the Thoroughbreds with 15 and 12 goals along with 12 and 11 assists respectively. But Highlands won a lot of 50-50 balls at midfield to limit their scoring opportunities.
"We were just trying to work the balls through the middle," said Alan Ford, Highlands junior midfielder. "Then when we could, we found the wides (players going up-field on the outside). We have some speed on the outside and up top so we can find balls back across and hopefully get good shots off and challenge (opposing) keepers."
Highlands had several chances to add to the lead in the first half before NewCath had a free kick with 50 seconds left. But Highlands junior Nick Gish booted the ball out of the 18-foot box.
The Bluebirds had numerous opportunities to add more goals, but could not put the right touches on shots. NewCath nearly tied the game with 9:27 left in the game. Eddie Schultz escaped a Highlands defender down the left sideline and centered it to Mitchell Otten. But Otten's header went above the goal.
"I would have loved for this game to be 3-0 and have a little comfort behind it," Winkler said. "But it's NCC. They're always going to bring everything they got against us so it's always going to be tough. The boys know know that from this point forward, it's one game at a time. You have to put it altogether in that one game. There are no second chances anymore."
The game usually plays out physical. Highlands drew 11 fouls to 10 for NewCath. Neither team drew any yellow or red cards, but Highlands had three offside penalties and took four corner kicks to none for the visitors.
The region tournament semifinals and title game take place at Ryle next week. Highlands will face a runner-up squad from the 33rd, 34th or 35th District in the region quarterfinals at Tower Park.
Campbell County 3, Highlands 1:
The Ladybirds (18-15) could not end the season on a high note losing. Highlands next plays in the 36th District Tournament.