|Bluebirds Building on Solid 2017 Postseason Run|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Luke Schweitzer (14) makes a move in the 9th Region semifinals against Covington Catholic last fall. Schweitzer is one of 16 seniors on the squad.|
That did turn out to be true as the Bluebirds finished 15-8 overall. But Highlands did go one step further in the postseason making it to the 9th Region championship for the first time since winning it in 2013. The Bluebirds knocked off two-time defending region champion Covington Catholic in the semifinals at Tower Park on penalty kicks, 1-0. CovCath became the first team from Northern Kentucky to win the state championship in 2015 and finished runner-up in 2016.
But the Bluebirds could not overcome the Ryle Raiders in a 3-1 loss in the region championship game. Highlands has lost to the Raiders in each of the past two postseasons. Ryle drove to the state semifinals before losing 2-1 in double overtime to Daviess County.
Highlands has remained consistent thanks to the youth programs in Fort Thomas. That means Niedert and staff can focus way more on game situations as opposed to fundamentals.
"We're able to focus on some tactics," Niedert said. "We'll be able to quickly get into figuring out what formations we're going to play and who's going to play where so we can focus on what we can do as a team instead of the individual piece of the game."
Highlands does return both goalkeepers in senior Will Burnham and junior Nick Fischer. The entire back line also returns in seniors Drew Cavacini, Alex Ford, Devin Harris and Will Hochleutner.
"Obviously, we had all of last year to grow. I think think this year we'll be very strong," Cavacini said. "We should still have a pretty familiar back four. Throughout the year, we're going to continue to grow the same as last year and be even stronger."
Ryle scored a couple goals on counterattacks in the region championship game. While Highlands may be susceptible to them, Niedert hopes to see the Bluebirds play their best defense by keeping the ball on the other side of midfield.
"There's only one ball in the game so we're going to try to make sure that our opponent is spending the majority of the time defending us instead of the other way around," Niedert said. "Counterattacks are an advantage in large part to who's fastest. I don't think you're going to find collectively a faster back line than what we'll have out there individually."
Niedert said the Bluebirds will have 25 players on the sideline this fall compared to 17 to start last year. That includes 16 seniors.
"It's going to make it competitive out here when we're training," Niedert said. "It's going to give us options when guys aren't getting the job done. There's not a significant drop-off through and through. It's just we've got to make sure we're getting the best 11 out on the field in every instance."
Highlands attacked out wide a lot last year. But Niedert said the strength offensively will be up top with several guys standing at 6-foot-2-inches and 6-3. The listed forwards are seniors Luke Schweitzer, Mike Penrod, Cary Gorrigan, juniors Porter Hedenberg, Caymon Stevie and sophomore Max Farris. Senior Demetrius Sarakatsannis could play defender, midfielder or forward with seniors Carter Holmes, Adrian Mills and sophomore Brayden Gillman playing forward or midfielder.
The listed midfielders are senior Keegan Brewer, Thomas Kelso and junior George Gates. Senior Garrett Crowe along with juniors Alexander Foubert and Elijah Stevie could play either defender or midfielder.
Niedert and staff have not been afraid to point it out when the team does not come out and play to its full potential. Niedert said it happened in some losses early in the season.
"It will help keep everyone held accountable as they go through the program," Holmes said. "That way when they get to the varsity level, they're as good as they can be and can go as far in the postseason as possible. We'll have fun at practice while also working hard improving as a team so when we get to big games and big moments, we're ready to convert and move on."
Niedert wanted to upgrade the schedule when he became head coach. The Bluebirds face two teams from Ohio and two more from Indiana. Highlands travels near Indianapolis on Sept. 22 to face Hamilton Southeastern.
"We're trying to make sure we're prepared for what comes in the postseason," Niedert said. "If we take some bumps along the way in the regular season, so be it. We've got to learn from it. It's part of the process. If we're not testing ourselves by playing the best competition possible, it's not going to work to our advantage. Fortunately, Northern Kentucky is pretty competitive. But at the same time, we want to make sure we're always finding that top-tier team."
Highlands has two scrimmages before opening the season on Aug. 14. Covington Holy Cross comes to Tower Park for an 8 p.m. game.