|Highlands Owns 20 Wins on Season; Girls Take on George Rogers Clark on Monday|
|PHOTO: Bob Jackson. Highlands senior Alex Ford (4) battles Covington Catholic senior Eric Curk (16) in the 9th Region championship on Saturday. Highlands won 2-1.|
Teams improve and it showed Saturday in Park Hills when the Highlands Bluebirds boys soccer team ventured there to face the host Covington Catholic Colonels for the 9th Region championship. But Highlands (20-1-3 overall) earned the 2-1 victory for its first region championship since 2013. CovCath had won eight in a row entering the game.
The Bluebirds watched the Highlands girls capture the 9th Region championship Thursday at Ryle against Notre Dame. Both teams last won region championships in the same season in 2010 when current Highlands girls Head Coach Alex Dean was a senior for the Bluebird boys. Highlands played in the old 10th Region then.
Highlands has won three straight against the Colonels (12-9-2) including a sound 4-1 victory at Tower Park in Sept. 11. The Bluebirds ended CovCath's two-year region championship run with a 1-0 victory on penalty kicks before losing 3-1 to Ryle in the region championship at Tower Park. CovCath won the state championship in 2015 and finished state runner-up in 2016.
"I told them beforehand if we get two goals, we're in good shape," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "Once we put that (second) on in, we were comfortable, almost a little too comfortable. Credit to CovCath. They are a well-coached team. We're in one of those regions where if you win this region, you have a great chance going forward. That's kind of what we're looking forward to next."
Highlands takes on the 10th Region winner on Tuesday at Tower Park at 7 p.m. in the Semi-State Round. The opponent will either be Montgomery County (17-3). The Indians knocked off host Pendleton County (12-6-2), 2-1 in the region championship.
Both teams recorded 18 shots. CovCath had nine on goal compared to four for Highlands. Highlands senior goalkeeper Will Burnham had eight saves and CovCath junior goalkeeper Spencer Eilers made two. Highlands had to defend more than usual.
Highlands may not have recorded a shutout. But the Bluebirds have still outscored opponents, 92-10 on the season.
Highlands had to survive some free kicks down the stretch to preserve the win. One came from just outside the 18-foot box with 20:54 when the shot sailed high and Burnham made save on the other one that started to the right of the box.
"CovCath is a very, very good team, but it does feel very good," said Alex Ford, Highlands senior defender. "We only gave up one goal in the region tournament and it (came) in the championship game. But we also didn't fold after we gave up that one goal. We had a nice one-goal lead and we kept that lead throughout (the rest of) the game."
The Bluebirds scored the lone goal of the first half with 25:09 left. Junior Porter Hedenberg grabbed the ball in the middle and kicked one in from just outside the box. That marked his 11th goal of the season.
Hedenberg also has a team-high 12 assists. His 34 points are tied with sophomore Max Farris for the most on the team.
Highlands went up 2-0 with 36 minutes left in the game. Senior Luke Schweitzer dribbled left and made a nice pass to junior Elijah Stevie through the box for the score from the right side. That marked the third goal of the year for Stevie and the sixth assist for Schweitzer good for third on the team. Schweitzer also has 11 goals and 28 points on the season tie for fourth on the team in points with junior Caymon Stevie.
"I just took my time and placed it in the corner," Elijah Stevie said. "I knew that I had a lot of space. I just did what I had to do."
Highlands constantly earned shots because of winning 50/50 balls at midfield. The Bluebirds consistently made nice runs and put pressure on CovCath at all points of the field.
"It's really important practicing the simple stuff because it really translates to the game," said Mike Penrod, Highlands senior midfielder. "If we can't get those balls out of there on the back line in very little time, (opponents) will get a goal."
Covington Catholic scored with 32:54 left in the half. Junior Nathan Darpel touched in a goal that Highlands could not clear out of the box. That marked the only goal this year for Darpel. Niedert said the wind blowing 15-20 miles per hour going into the goal played a factor in the lone CovCath score.
The 2013 Highlands team led by the likes of Collin Dean, Chris Garbig and Cole Davis-Roberts beat West Jessamine (1-0) in the first round of the state tournament before losing 3-1 to eventual state champion Lexington Paul Dunbar. During that same season, Niedert guided North Oldham to the state quarterfinals when the Mustangs lost 1-0 to Bowling Green.
Girls Sub-State 5 Update:
Highlands Plays George Rogers Clark:
The 10th Region and 39th District champion George Rogers Clark Lady Cardinals (14-7-2) will come to Tower Park to face the Bluebirds in the Sub-State 5 game at 7 p.m.
GRC rallied past the Scott Lady Eagles (11-9-1), 3-1 in Taylor Mill on Saturday. The Lady Cardinals have won the 10th Region three years in a row. But they did not get past the sub-state round either time losing to Lexington Catholic (3-1) in 2016 and two-time defending state champion West Jessamine (3-0) last year.
Highlands hopes to play more loose after knocking off seven-time region champion Notre Dame (1-0) in the 9th Region championship. The Bluebirds had lost five in a row to the Pandas in the post-season.
Highlands and GRC have three opponents in common in Lexington Catholic, Newport Central Catholic and West Jessamine. Highlands went 4-0 against those teams while GRC went 0-3 getting outscored by a combined 9-1.
GRC has outscored opponents, 96-44 on the season recording four shut-outs including three in the post-season. Sophomore Allie Bush led the Lady Cardinals with 23 goals and junior Delaney Manning had 22 entering the 10th Region championship. Manning also had 12 assists and 56 points with Bush making eight and 54 points. Their goalkeeper is senior Brooklyn Johnson.
"I know (Bush) is very talented so we have to make sure we watch her," Dean said. "We can't take anything lightly, especially if they make it to a state tournament. They must be pretty good."
Highlands has out-scored opponents, 102-14 with 17 shut-outs. The Bluebirds have shut out the last nine opponents. Junior goalkeepers Maggie Hinegardner and Rylee Thomas have been supported by solid defense all season.
"I think our center backs (defenders in junior Lauren Deckert and senior Hannah Hartman) help us a lot telling us when to go, when to step and maybe hold back some," said Kelsey Mathis, Highlands junior. "It helps us know how to play the ball, know when somebody is coming behind us. It helps us counter attack."
Highlands has nine players with 10 or more points this year. Senior forward Lindsey Meyer leads the way with 24 goals and 13 assists for 61 points. The record-setting standout owns the triple crown career scoring record at Highlands with 71 goals and 42 assist for 184 points.
Junior Maria Wiefering is second in points with 16 goals and eight assists for 40 points. Sophomore Kenzie Nehus is third with 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points. Freshman Chloe Bramble has come along lately scoring five goals and recording three assists for 13 points including the lone goal Thursday against Notre Dame.
Highlands last won a region crown in 2010 beating Notre Dame, 2-0 in the old 10th Region. That team led by the likes of Caroline Newman, MacKenzie Cole, Ashley Collinsworth and MacKenzie Grause beat Ashland Blazer (4-0) in the first round of the state tournament before losing 3-0 to eventual state champion St. Henry in the state quarterfinals.