|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands volleyball players celebrate after winning their first 36th District volleyball championship since 2012.|
The junior goalkeeper for the Highlands Bluebird boys soccer team (15-7 overall) had already denied six shots and three penalty kicks from the two-time 9th Region champion Covington Catholic Colonels (13-7-4). But another one meant ending an impressive run of a state championship in 2015 and state runner-up finish last year.
Burnham dug in as CovCath senior defender Johnathan Dietz approached the ball. The shot went to Burnham's left. But he timed the dive well, deflected it high to his left and sent the home side into a frenzy as his teammates celebrated the huge 1-0 victory.
"Obviously, it's almost entirely luck," Burnham said. "The player could send you either way and you're just pretty much guessing. I got lucky (Thursday). I chose the right way four times and we won. I do try to read the body shape. But CovCath (has) really good players so they could fake you either way."
The win sends host Highlands to the 9th Region championship game for the first time since winning it in 2013. The Bluebirds will face Ryle (20-2-1) in the title game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday back at Tower Park. Highlands beat the Raiders, 2-0 on Oct. 3 in Union and lost 1-0 to CovCath in Park Hills on Sept. 12 during the regular season. Ryle beat St. Henry, 2-1 in overtime in the second semifinal game.
"With our guys and our talent, we knew this game was within reach," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "The fact that we went to a shoot-out is an indication of how even the teams are. Our keeper just had an outstanding performance in the shoot-out. Even as they were playing balls in, he was aggressive. He did a great job keeping balls out of there. Our back line limited them to few shots."
The teams went to penalty kicks after 80 minutes in regulation and two five-minute overtime sessions did not see anyone score. The teams went to sudden death after tying 2-2 after five penalty kicks each. Highlands junior Carter Holmes made his kick past CovCath goalkeeper Thomas Cody.
"I knew I could step up there, take it and make it," Holmes said. "I went up there and picked my spot because if you second-guess you might hit and miss or it will get saved."
The penalty kicks started with Elias Ordonez for Highlands and senior Noah Wulfeck for CovCath making theirs. But Blake Shuley scored for the Bluebirds and Burnham blocked the attempt by Dominic Russo.
Highlands did not score on any of its last three kicks before sudden death. But Thomas Bradley scored for the Colonels to tie the score at 2-2 after three tries. Burnham blocked Nathan Diemling and Jack Stava to send the penalty kicks to sudden death.
Highlands outshot CovCath, 15-12 with both teams earning six shots on goal. Cody and Burnham made six saves each. The best chance the Bluebirds had to score came with 5:22 left in the game when Ordonez took a nice angle and Cody deflected it away before a teammate cleared it.
The Colonels had 12 fouls compared to seven for the Bluebirds. CovCath had three corner kicks to one for Highlands.
Both teams had three off-sides fouls each. Neither team had a yellow card or red card.
The 9th Region winner will travel to the home of the 11th Region winner in the state tournament. That will be either Lexington Catholic or Lexington Dunbar.
"We do want to keep it as normal as possible," Niedert said. "It does work to our advantage that we're playing it at our field. That itself helps keep it normal."
Highlands 3, Newport Central Catholic 1:
The rubber match took all the marbles in this one.
The Bluebirds (24-10 overall) came through for their first 36th District championship since 2012 with the 25-17, 22-25, 28-26, 25-13 victory over the Thoroughbreds (19-17). Highlands beat NewCath for just the third time in the last 27 meetings dating back to 2005.
Highlands lost 3-0 (26-24, 25-23, 25-20) to the Thoroughbreds on Aug. 22. But the Bluebirds recorded a break-though 2-0 (25-18, 25-19) win over NewCath in the September Slam at Scott on Sept. 2.
The difference between the first game and the second two meetings came down to balance. Setter Audrey Graves had 53 assists and an ace. Junior Margot Seidel led Highlands with 23 kills and sophomore Casey Dunn had 20 with sophomore Ava Hockney recording 12. Seidel also had three aces and Hockney had six blocks.
"We came out strong in the first set. But in the second set, we came out. It got in our head. We start doubting our strengths, stopped playing aggressive and things started falling apart," said Katelyn Sallee, Highlands Head Coach. "I think we were able to fight through that and get back to what makes us special."
The Bluebirds had to consistently dig up hard balls from the likes of NewCath senior Mikah Freppon. But Tournament Most Valuable Player Gracie Schweitzer came through with 30 digs and Seidel had 20. Dunn added 19 with Olivia Gessner and Graves recording 13 each.
"I'm so competitive so no matter what, I gave 100 percent effort," Schweitzer said. "Effort gets you a long way so I got around to the balls and made passes I didn't think I was going to. Mentally, I stayed strong, continued through the game and played how I wanted to play."
Highlands won the first game but struggled in the second game. NewCath led 24-14. But the Bluebirds scored eight in a row before the Thoroughbreds won the game. Once Highlands stopped beating itself, things went well.
The third game stayed even. But Graves and Hockey recorded back-to-back kills to give the Bluebirds the set.
"I think it really helped us start off strong, really boost our confidence and get some energy going," Dunn said. "That just pushed us through the game. I think we can definitely rely on the whole team."
Highlands pulled away with seven straight to go up 9-2 in the fourth game. A Hockney kill prompted a NewCath time-out. But Highlands extended the lead to 18-9 following a Dunn kill. Senior Joy Kappesser finished the game with a kill for Highlands.
"We don't ever want to be in that position (close set)," Sallee said. "The wind blows and someone wins the set. We basically said we're going to start cleaner and end cleaner. We came out, hit the gas and I really think that did help us in the fourth."
Highlands has played a good part of the season without senior middle blocker Mary Claire Redden. Redden is out for the season with an injury, but she's still supporting the team.
"Even though I got hurt, I never thought about it," Redden said. "I was in the doctor's office and I called. I was asking for scoring updates and I got back as soon as I could. I want to support my teammates as much as possible. Being a part of the team, we can accomplish great things even if I'm on the sidelines cheering."
The 9th Region Tournament takes place at Covington Holmes next week. Highlands will face either Cooper, Beechwood or Dixie Heights in the 9th Region quarterfinals.
Highlands 27, Ryle 3:
The Bluebirds moved to 7-1 with a convincing road victory. Jake Fahlbush had two interceptions including one for a toucdown. Brycon Cody hauled in a touchdown pass from Cam Hergott and had an interception. Mason South and Jason Noe added rushing touchdowns. Noe had a fumble recovery.
Highlands concludes the season next Thursday against Newport Central Catholic. Game time is 6 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.