|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Carter Holmes sets up to kick the ball. Holmes scored a critical goal just eight seconds into the second half to give the Bluebirds a 2-0 lead.|
About 24 hours after that post, the Bluebirds (23-1-3 overall) took care of their end of the deal to set up one final "double date" when they both play for state championships. But Highlands first had to survive a strong showing from the 2nd Region champion Hopkinsville Tigers (19-7-2) in a 2-1 victory on Thursday in the state semifinals at Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington.
It rained on and off throughout the entire game. A rain delay occurred with 15:42 left in the first half when the winds blew the Kentucky High School Athletic Association advertisements onto the field.
"Once we knew the wind was going to be in our face at the beginning, our goal was to make sure we didn't give up a goal," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "If we defended well in that first half, we'd set ourselves up well in the second half. We probably attacked better in the first half, but sometimes things go in your favor when you don't expect it. It was kind of hard to have too much of a pep talk at halftime because we didn't really know what we were going to see. When we got out here, (the weather) calmed down a bit."
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Highlands stuck with its identity of strong defense and using its speed and size to dominate the shot category. The Bluebirds recorded 35 shots including 10 on goal to 10 shots with just three on goal for the Tigers. They have outscored the opposition, 99-12 this year.
But junior goalkeeper Xavier Bussell had a strong game with seven saves to give the Tigers a chance at the end. Highlands senior goalkeeper Will Burnham had two saves.
The only goal of the first half came with 20:04 remaining. Sophomore Max Farris took the ball on the left side and found senior 6-foot-5-inch forward Luke Schweitzer for the goal to give Highlands a 1-0 lead.
Schweitzer has a team-high 15 goals on the season and Farris has 12 assists. The two are tied for the most points on the team with 36 each. Schweitzer also has six assists and Farris has scored 12 goals.
"Max Farris is dynamic out wide," Niedert said. "He just went around guys like he's done a lot this year. Luke just kind of had to tap it in. It's kind of a familiar feeling. Max and Luke have gotten us a long way in the postseason it seems."
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Tiger senior forward Ryan Roussel came into the game leading Hopkinsville with 96 points on 41 goals and 14 assists. Highlands held him to two shots with none on goal.
"Definitely a big part of that game was making sure we shut (Roussel) down," said Drew Cavacini, Highlands senior defender. "We did that. Unfortunately, they did get one. It was an unfortunate spill. But for the rest of the game, we locked them down."
It did not take the Bluebirds long to score the game-winning goal. Just eight seconds into the second half, senior Carter Holmes launched a quick kick off the opening pass about 60 yards above a stunned Bussell for the score to put Highlands up 2-1.
"One of my former coaches brought it up after one of our (9th) region games," Holmes said. "He said I had a big enough foot to get it there. So in practice we worked on it. I kind of got the hang of it and (Coach) Niedert saw (Bussell) was off his line so it's on. We went for it and it worked out perfectly."
Holmes has 11 goals and five assists on the season for 27 points. That is good for fifth on the team.
The Tigers got the goal back with 46:46 left in the game. On a free kick, the ball deflected off Burnham to sophomore midfielder Jose Favela for the score. Senior midfielder Zach Moore received an assist off the kick.
Moore finished second in scoring for the Tigers with 12 goals and 19 assists for 43 points. Favela finished with four goals and an assist for nine points. Hopkinsville ended up outscoring opponents, 96-53.
"It think it was a little weird scoring early in the second half," Niedert said. "We kind of thought we had done the work. They had some really good players with big ole' hearts. Credit to (the Tigers). That was a team that was not willing to quit whatsoever."
Hopkinsville kept the pressure on until the very end. The Tigers had a header in the box to high with 1:20 left in the game.
The physical game saw the teams receive one yellow card each. Highlands also had six corner kicks to four for Hopkinsville. Both teams also received one offsides call each.
Looking at St. Xavier:
The Tigers had to survive a rugged 7th Region to earn another trip to the state tournament. Their two losses came to region rivals.
St. Xavier has outscored opponents, 132-20 on the season. The Tigers have shut out 16 opponents this year compared, which is the same amount as Highlands.
"We're going to do everything we can. We are psyched," said Jackson Lehrter, Highlands senior. "We're ready to go out there. We know it's going to be a tough challenge, but we think we might be able to pull it off."
St. Xavier's two losses came to arch-rival Louisville Trinity, 1-0 on Sept. 26 on its home turf and to Louisville Collegiate (4-3 on penalty kicks) on Oct. 26 on penalty kicks. Highlands trailed Trinity, 1-0 before lightning cancelled the game with 15 minutes left in the first half making it an incomplete game at Tower Park on Aug. 25 and beat Collegiate, 1-0 on Sept. 8.
Two seniors in midfielder Case Cox and striker Conner George lead the Tigers in scoring. Cox assisted George with 18:22 left in the first half for the lone goal in St. Xavier's 1-0 semifinal win over Lexington Henry Clay (12-9-3). George has 25 goals and nine assists for 59 points on the year and Cox has 24 goals and 10 assists for 58 points. Niedert said facing Roussel will come in handy facing those two.
"We've been looking forward to St. X," Niedert said. "That's part of the reason we play the schedule that we do. We were able to watch them play Henry Clay. We expected St. X to be pretty dominant. But Henry Clay had its fair share of possession and opportunities. St. X has two dynamic guys going forward. We have to make sure we defend them."
The two teams met in the state championship in 2008 during Dean's sophomore year. St. Xavier won 7-2. That game took place at Toyota Stadium in Georgetown.