|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team captured its first region championship since 2010.|
The Notre Dame Pandas had won seven straight region championships since the Highlands Bluebirds won their last one in 2010. That run included state championships in 2011 and 2013 in addition to state runner-up finishes in 2012 and last season.
During that time, Highlands lost to Notre Dame in region play five times including the region championship games in 2011, 2013 and 2016. The Bluebirds lost 1-0 decisions to the Pandas in the 2016 region championship at Tower Park and in the 2015 region semifinals at St. Henry.
"The coaching staff knew that we had something special and we were kind of blessed from the coaches prior that have led to these girls being prepared to win a region championship," Dean said. "That was a great win. That's nothing bad about Notre Dame, but 1-0 in a gritty fashion is the way to go."
Highlands has shut out nine straight opponents and 17 overall. The Bluebirds own a 12-game winning streak overall. Highlands has outscored opponents, 102-14 on the season. They also finished a perfect 14-0 in region play. The current region format started in 2012.
The last time Highlands allowed a goal came in a come-from-behind 3-2 win at Notre Dame on Sept. 22. The Bluebirds have beaten the Pandas in four of the past five meetings during the regular season.
The game's lone goal came with 20:24 left in the first half. Highlands senior forward Lindsey Meyer sent the ball downfield. Freshman forward Chloe Bramble outraced Notre Dame freshman Natalie Bain to the ball and slid it past Notre Dame sophomore goalkeeper Kate Moore for the goal.
"I saw Lindsey. I saw the play where she was passing it," Bramble said. "I just ran onto it hoping I could somehow get a touch on the ball. I was really shocked when it went in. I really felt it was going to hit off the goalkeeper or something. But it just happened to slip under her arm and into the goal."
Bramble has five goals and three assists this year for 13 points. Dean said the team did not consider bringing up players from the junior varsity and freshman teams before the season. But Bramble learned an important lesson from 2009 Highlands alum and 2008 Ms. Kentucky Soccer Leslie Twehues when the former Xavier University player came to practice a week ago.
Highlands won consecutive state championships in 2005 and 2006 during Twehues' freshman and sophomore seasons and finished state runner-up in 2008 during her senior year. Highlands and Lexington Catholic went to penalty kicks to decide the 2005 state championship game. Twehues missed a penalty kick before Rachel Redmond-Stahlhut hit the game-winner to give the Bluebirds the 1-0 victory.
"Chloe really stepped up during practice and became kind of a leader even as a freshman so we 100 percent belief in her," Dean said. "We threw her in there. I don't think Notre Dame had any idea who she was. Having a girl with speed and grit really helped us. I think (Twehues talking about the penalty kick) kind of made Chloe realize pressure is not there. Just go out and play."
That also marked the 42nd assist for Meyer. She added on to her Highlands record-setting career with 71 goals and 42 assist for 184 points.
Notre Dame unofficially out-shot Highlands, 6-5. But the Bluebirds put up three more shots on goal to two for the Pandas. Moore and Highlands junior goalkeeper Maggie Hinegardner had two saves each.
Notre Dame did not receive any great looks at the goal. Highlands did a great job stepping to and clearing balls all over the field and sending them up-field.
The Pandas received an indirect kick with 29:49 left in the second half just outside the 18-foot box. But Hinegardner made the save in the box.
"I think (defense) means everything," said Hannah Hartman, Highlands senior defender. "It all starts from the top. If (opponents) don't score then they don't win. We also have the (scorers) who have gotten those goals to get us where we are (now)."
Danielle Rennekamp led Notre Dame with 16 goals and four assists for 36 points. The Pandas had six players with six or more points. Rennekamp is one of seven seniors listed on the Notre Dame roster.
Highlands senior Gwen Gorman earned Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. Senior midfielder Hanna Buecker, Hinegardner and junior midfielder Tatum Price also made the all-tournament team.
Notre Dame appeared to be slipping toward the end of the season going 1-3-2 including a 3-1 loss at Dixie Heights to end the regular season. Not only that, Notre Dame lost Head Coach David Gronotte for a few games for receiving a red card and subsequent ejection meaning he had to miss a few games. But the Pandas beat Beechwood, 6-1 to win the 35th District championship before beating Dixie Heights (2-0) in the region quarterfinals and Newport Central Catholic (1-0) in the region semifinals on Wednesday.
Highlands will play host to the 10th Region champion Monday at Tower Park at 7 p.m. The Bluebirds will not know their opponent until Saturday. George Rogers Clark (13-7-2) travels to Scott (11-8-1) for a Noon battle Saturday.
9th Region Semifinals:
Highlands 4, Cooper 0:
The Bluebirds (19-1-3 overall) rolled to another sound post-season shut-out. Highland has outscored opponents, 90-9 on the season including 19-0 in the post-season.
"We're a fit team," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "We rostered a lot of guys because you just never know what's going to happen at this time of year. We're at a point where fortunately we haven't taken any big knocks. We've been in position where guys have been getting significant minutes in meaningful games. It's not even the first 11 that are fit. It's all 24 of them. We're kind of in the mode where we're willing to outwork teams. When you're willing to outwork teams and you're technically sound, it puts us in better position."
Highlands out-shot 15-5 Cooper, 37-7 including 10-3 on goal. Highlands senior goalkeeper Will Burnham recorded three saves and Cooper senior goalkeeper Austin Boles recorded six. Highlands has 15 shut-outs this year. Highlands especially focused on Cooper senior forward Grant Snyder making sure he didn't make plays down the middle.
"The defense is strong in the back and the possession of the midfielder and the attackers up top make it so the defenders don't have to defend as much as they would have to," said Carter Holmes, Highlands senior. "It relieves stress on the defense."
It took about 24 minutes for the Bluebirds to score the only goal needed to win the game. But senior midfielder Mike Penrod dribbled through a couple Cooper defenders, moved to his left and found junior Porter Hedenberg cutting across the middle for the score.
That marked the 10th goal of the year for Hedenberg and second assist for Penrod. Hedenberg also has 12 assists and 32 points this season good for second on the team.
With 7:21 left in the first half, sophomore Max Farris kicked the ball to the right to junior Caymon Stevie for the goal to put Highlands up 2-0. Farris leads Highlands with 34 points on 12 goal and 10 assists. Stevie has a team-high 13 goals and two assists for 28 points.
The Bluebirds took a 3-0 lead into halftime. Senior Demetri Sarakatsannis had a nice header for the score with 5:10 left in the half. Sarakatsannis has four goals this year.
"We had been practicing putting the ball back to the far post, having our striker knock it down then somebody coming short for them and knocking it in," Sarakatsannis said. "We did what we wanted to do off the set piece and we followed through with it. I had to run 10 yards to get in position."
Senior Max Johncox scored the only goal of the second half for Highlands. That marked his first goal this season.
"At halftime, we were pretty dominant," Niedert said. "I told them we don't have to score. It's kind of a survive-and-advance mode so we just needed to make sure we don't give anything up. Thankfully, that's a position we're used to being in. It's a really fortunate position at this time of year to be able to stick to our game and not have to adapt to who we're playing as much. We're just getting started hopefully."
The Bluebirds last won the region championship in 2013. That squad beat West Jessamine (1-0) in the first round of the state tournament before losing 3-1 to Lexington Dunbar in the state quarterfinals.
Highlands 21, Ryle 14:
The Bluebirds moved to 7-2 on the season with the overtime win at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
Highlands travels to Dixie Heights on Oct. 25. Game time is 6 p.m.