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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Double Heartbreak at State for Bluebirds Soccer Teams

Highlands Girls, Boys Lose Tough Ones in State Championship Games

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands boys soccer team fell 1-0 to Louisville St. Xavier in the state championship on Saturday.

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands girls soccer team finished state runner-up losing 2-1 to Louisville Sacred Heart.
Both Highlands Bluebirds soccer teams made one last trip to Lexington for the final day of the postseason hoping to bring home gold.

The Highlands girls hoped to add state championship number three and the Bluebirds sought the first one ever. In their way stood the same two teams that denied them the chances in 2008 in the Louisville 7th Region powers Sacred Heart Valkyries and St. Xavier Tigers. Those same teams denied the Bluebirds again by closer margins.

Girls Championship Game:
Louisville Sacred Heart 2, Highlands 1:

Highlands (23-5) had its chances in the third and most important meeting of the year against Sacred Heart (25-1-1). But the third time was not the charm.

The Bluebirds outscored the opposition, 113-17. They had not allowed more than one goal in a game since a 3-2 win at Notre Dame on Sept. 22.

The Valkyries outscored opponents, 133-15. They allowed more than one goal in a game just three times this season.

Sacred Heart also beat Highlands during the regular season. The Valkyries won a shoot-out against the Bluebirds, 5-4 in Fort Thomas on Aug. 25 then beat Highlands, 2-0 in the Lexington Catholic Cup on Sept. 15.

"First (I give a) shout-out to Sacred Heart (for a) fantastic year," said Alex Dean, Highlands Head Coach. "It was an incredible job by them. They were number one all year. They had the target on their back all year and they dealt with it like they did - pretty special."

Tied at 1-1 with 25:45 left in regulation, Highlands had a golden chance to take the lead. Bluebirds record-breaking senior forward Lindsey Meyer had a great shot that deflected off the right post.

Meyer finished the season with a team-high 28 goals, 16 assists for 72 points. Her storied career ended with school records of 75 goals and 45 assists for 195 points.

"I can't speak enough about the girls on this team," Dean said. "Their grit and growth as a team is something that I have never seen even as a player. We've had a little bit of adversity that not a lot of people know about. All the credit goes to them, the coaching staff. We did a great job this year, but it's all about the girls. We wouldn't be where we are without them."

The Valkyries scored the game-winning goal almost 10 minutes later with 15:50 left in the game. Senior midfielder Estelle Gabriel received a free kick from 30 yards out on the left side just over Highlands junior 5-foot-8-inch Maggie Hinegardner's hands on the right side. Gabriel has five goals and six assists for 16 points.

"It's a game of inches," Dean said. "Sometimes it doesn't go your way. We fought hard until the end. We played 13 girls and we had eight or nine girls go all 80 minutes in the championship game and they stepped up to the challenge. Like we said, everyone had to play her A game and we did. The whole Highlands, Fort Thomas community is proud of these girls."

Sacred Heart out-shot Highlands, 16-9 including 10-3 on goal. But Hinegardner made eight saves compared to two for Vakyrie sophomore goalkeeper Amanda Isaacs.

"One of the strengths of our senior class is those long shots," said Libbey Smith, Sacred Heart Head Coach. "We didn't talk about taking more long shots. It was a natural thing. We didn't talk about her size at all. She's a good keeper and sometimes you need to get in closer when you play a good keeper."

The Valkyries scored in the first 10 minutes. Senior midfielder Ashley Durik fired a shot from the top of the 18-foot box into the left side of the goal. Durik finished the year with 31 goals and nine assists for 71 points.

Many wondered how Highlands would handle Sacred Heart's speed. But the Bluebirds had their chances against it after that point.

"After that first goal, a lot of us were getting negative on each other," said Lauren Deckert, Highlands junior. "We kind of just started talking and communicating more rather than screaming at each other and telling each other we're wrong or anything like that. We were more positive. That way no one was getting down on themselves. It's not individual. It's a team."

Deckert had a free kick about four minutes later from just outside the top of the box. But the shot went wide left.

Highlands scored the equalizer with 25:51 left in the first half. Junior Maria Broering centered the ball to sophomore forward Kenzie Nehus for the goal. Nehus finished the season with 12 goals and eight assists for 32 points good for third on the team. Broering finished with nine goals and two assists for 20 points.

Highlands fans expressed displeasure in the foul calls. Highlands unofficially had 11 to six for Sacred Heart. Both teams had one yellow card each.

The Bluebirds had not been to the state tournament since 2010. They had also not been to the state championship since 2008.

Highlands graduates four seniors in defenders Gwen Gorman, Hannah Hartman, Meyer and midfielder Hanna Buecker. Those four also helped Highlands make the 9th Region finals in 2016. Nehus, Buecker and Hartman made the all-tournament team.

"It was a really great thing to see with everybody working hard over all these years to finally make it here," Buecker said. "It took a lot of teamwork and a lot of early morning practices."

They return the core of the team led by the likes of Deckert, Hinegardner, Nehus, Broering, junior Maria Wiefering, sophomore Greta Noble among others. Wiefering finished the season with 17 points and 10 assists for 44 points good for second on the team.

Boys Championship Game:
Louisville St. Xavier 1, Highlands 0:

The 14-time state champion Tigers (26-2-1) scored just 29 seconds into the game and held on for the win over the Bluebirds (23-2-3). They beat Daviess County, 3-0 in the state championship last year.

Senior midfielder Case Cox found senior striker Conner George on a breakaway for the game's only goal. George had 26 goals and nine assists on the season for 61 points and Cox scored 24 goals and had 11 assists for 59 points.

"We did give give up a quick goal, but to be fair, I think our guys were a little nervous, a little tense," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "When that goal was scored, we realized what game was going on. It took us a little more to get settled, but after 70 minutes or so, we played really well. We stood toe to toe with a team that's a top 10-15 team nationally. They scored a quality goal. No disrespect to the goal they scored. We had our fair share of chances. On a given day, we play them 10 times, we might win five."

The Tigers out-shot the Bluebirds, 12-10 including 6-4 on goal. St. Xavier also had four corner kicks to one for Highlands.

Highlands had a few chances that goalkeeper Dolan Dugan denied with four saves. Highlands senior goalkeeper Will Burnham made five saves.

The Tigers wound up outscoring the opposition, 132-20 on the season. The Bluebirds still outscored the opposition, 99-13 on the year.

"I can't say enough about those guys," Niedert said. "It was a special season. The only thing I could want more for them is this trophy to be gold. Otherwise, I'm so proud of these guys."

The game had physical play. Both teams received two yellow cards each.

Highlands graduates 16 seniors. They will build around Alexander Foubert, twins Caymon and Elijah Stevie and George Gates among others next season.

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