Following a quarterfinal loss to Dixie Heights on penalty kicks in 2012, Highlands has made five straight appearances in the region semifinals and two appearances in the region championship game. But like everyone else in the region, no one has been able to knock off the Notre Dame Pandas. The Pandas own two state championships and two state runner-up finishes during their run of seven straight region titles dating back to the last Highlands region championship in 2010. New Highlands Head Coach Alex Dean and staff are hoping to help the Bluebirds overcome that hurdle.
"(It's about) practice (on penalty kicks), which everyone has been doing," said Gwen Gorman, Highlands senior defender/forward. "We have to make sure we finish (shots) so we don't have to get to that point."
The Bluebirds finished the year 17-5-1 overall and 36th District champions. Highlands graduated six seniors from that squad. Two-year starting defender Hannah Gish also decided not to return for her senior year.
But Dean and staff return a lot of talent and depth from last year. Dean's assists are former Highlands Head Coach Nina Kearns, 2012 Newport Central Catholic graduate Olivia Huber and 2014 Highlands graduate Kelsey Etherton. Kearns led Highlands to its two state championships in 2005 and 2006 and a runner-up finish in 2008.
"We have a fantastic staff," Dean said. "Olivia Huber and Kelsey Etherton know what it takes to win on the field. We are a very young staff that knows and loves the game. Luckily, we have veteran coach Nine Kearns to guide us with her knowledge of winning state championships. Even in the first week of working as a whole, we have really done well with communicating and coming to agreement on things."
Things start with senior leadership. The Bluebirds have four this year in Gorman, forward Lindsey Meyer, midfielder Hanna Buecker and defender Hannah Hartman. Hartman returned this year after not playing last year.
Meyer is one of four players returning who scored double-digit goals last year. Meyer led Highlands with 13 assists last year and finished second with 18 goals for a total of 49 points, also good for second on the team. Gorman had seven goal and seven assists for 21 points.
"I think all the seniors are pretty good at communicating with each other," Buecker said. "Being in the back, it's kind of easier to see the field so we just have to make sure that we're loud enough so our teammates can hear what we want them to do and if they're not listening, let them know what the coaches say so everyone is on the same page on the field."
A quick glance at the stats from last year shows the amount of scoring returning from last year. Highlands outscored opponents, 102-15 posting 13 shutouts. Just more than 88 percent (90-of-102 goals) of players who scored last year's goals returns including the four in double digits.
Junior forward Maria Wiefering led Highlands with a total of 54 points last year. Wiefering had a team-high 22 goals and 10 assists. Junior Lauren Deckert, who could play anywhere on the field and junior forward Maria Broering both scored 12 goals each last year. Two players who saw action at forward last year graduated in Kaitlyn Meyer and Molly Wiefering. Molly Wiefering also played some midfield when not injured. Molly Wiefering took her talents to the University of the Cumberlands down in Willamsburg (Kentucky) of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
"The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in our skills," Dean said. "We can win some games with skill, but to compete with the elite, it will take effort, fitness and playing as a team. Those three things will be the major focuses this preseason and also throughout the year."
Highlands also returns junior Tatum Price and Jordan Halpin at forward. Five others could see action there in juniors Amy Herfel, Brooklyn Shuley, Mallory Zimmerman, sophomores Kenzie Nehus, Greta Noble and Maggie Stieby. Nehus, Herfel, Zimmerman and Stieby could also see action at midfield with Noble and Shuley fighting for time at defender.
The midfield is often crucial to winning games. The midfielder have to go after 50/50 balls and make things happen. Highlands graduated a solid midfielder in Kylie Stava. But juniors Abby Stein, Kelsey Miller and Kelsey Mathis hope to provide depth there.
Highlands has been solid in the back in recent years. The Bluebirds graduated two defenders in Sophie Steppe and Isabella Thomas. Players competing for time there are juniors Katelynn Helminiak, Natalie Ossege, Parker Price and Kelsey Schuett.
"Our philosophy is to be a high-pressing team on all parts of the field," Dean said. "We are going to try to force our opponents to make mistakes and then we hope to capitalize on those errors."
Highlands returns two junior goalkeepers in Maggie Hinegardner and Rylee Thomas. Hinegardner took over the primary starting role last year after senior goalkeeper Olivia McQueary went down with a season-ending injury early in the season.
Highlands has a full 21-game schedule this year after playing just 19 during the regular season last year. Campbell County is back on the schedule and Cincinnati Summit Country Day is a new opponent this year. The Bluebirds again go down to the prestigious Lexington Catholic Tournament.
"A lot of the scheduling was completed before I was named coach, but we were able to get a few more games," Dean said. "We are excited for each team we play as they will each present a different challenge. We have a tough schedule that prepares us for the postseason. We do have a few games that are highlighted on our schedule."
Highlands opens the year Aug. 16 against St. Henry at Tower Park. Game time is 8 p.m.