The Bluebirds came the closest as any team in school history to a state championship. They finished an astounding 23-2-3 winning the 36th District championship and the first 9th Region crown since 2013. Following a double-overtime win over Montgomery County in the Semi-State 5 game, Highlands handled Daviess County, 3-0 before edging Hopkinsville, 2-1 in the state semifinals.
Then in the state championship game, Highlands faced state power Louisville St. Xavier and stood toe-to-toe with the mighty Tigers. But a goal in the first minute proved to be enough for the Tigers to win 1-0. Highlands had played for the state championship one other time in 2008, but lost to St. Xavier, 7-2.
|Voted best yoga studio in Kentucky by Best Things Kentucky. Located at 18 N. Fort Thomas Ave.|
Highlands did graduate 16 players from last year's team. That includes goalkeeper Will Burnham, forward Luke Schweitzer and forward/midfielder Carter Holmes. Schweitzer tied for the team-high with 36 points on 15 goals and six assists.
The biggest losses to graduation came on defense. The Bluebirds graduated defenders Drew Cavacini, Alex Ford, Devin Harris, Will Hochleutner and Demetri Sarakatsannis. Highlands outscored opponents, 99-13 last year with 12 shutouts.
But Highlands saw 80 players try out for the team. The Bluebirds plan to dress 15 players early in the season on varsity. Highlands has 11 seniors this year.
"We're at a level where the vast majority of our players are playing soccer year-round," Niedert said. "They're not necessarily just playing within Fort Thomas, they're playing with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky-based teams that push them to play at the highest levels throughout the year and we reap the benefits of that as a program. There's a lot of interest in this sport. The level we're able to run with from day one is really high just because the guys put a lot of time and effort into it. A lot of families them."
Junior forward Max Farris tied Schweitzer for the team lead with 36 points scoring 12 goals and tallying 12 assists. Senior forward Porter Hedenberg led Highlands with 13 assists and scored 11 goals for a total of 35 points and senior forward Caymon Stevie had 13 goals and three assists for 29 points.
"The chemistry on the offensive four is pretty strong," Stevie said. "The mid-field and our depth is going to be different. But it's a good team overall. It's a strong environment. We don't get ahead of ourselves. We know it's going to be hard."
Niedert and staff like the versatility of the team. That could make things less predictable this year. Hedenberg could also play at midfield.
"We have a lot of guys who will be able to play different ways based on what the opponents are doing. We have guys out wide who can beat people one-on-one," Niedert said. "We still have some height left. We just want to put ourselves in the best position."
Niedert said the Bluebirds could be in a lot of 4-3 games this year. Highlands had a lot of success making opponents defend them last year.
"We'll be able to create plenty of opportunities because our top few guys that are up high are different players from one another," Niedert said. "It's a very dangerous mix because we have a lot of tools to go at (opponent) with."
Senior George Gates returns after playing at midfield last year. Other candidates to to play at both midfield and forward are juniors Brayden Gillman and Ben Fischer.
Highlands has three players that could play midfield or defender. They are senior Alexander Foubert, Elijah Stevie and junior Hank Cook. Senior defender Ford Orem returns after seeing varsity experience last year. The other two listed defenders are seniors Nate Gesenhues and Adam Groneck.
"Our chemistry and communication in the defensive back line was really good," Foubert said. "We have a couple new players on the back line, but I think if we keep talking, we'll be able to do the same things this year."
Senior Nick Fischer is the most experienced goalkeeper returning for the Bluebirds. He recorded three shutouts last year. Seniors Harrison Spiess and Ty Hopping are also battling for playing time there.
The players and coaches are very aware they have huge targets on their backs this year. Niedert said it would be a huge disappointment if the Bluebirds do not at least make it to the region championship game where they've been the last two years.
But that's why Highlands plays a tough schedule. Niedert pointed out a team could go 5-15 during the regular season and still win a state championship. He pointed at Lexington Henry Clay as an example. The Blue Devils went 6-7-3 during the regular season and still won the 11th Region before losing 1-0 to St. Xavier in the state semifinals.
"Last year, we tried to build a similar schedule," Niedert said. "It's a two-way partnership when you build a schedule so when you contact people and you have a little more success, teams are more likely to schedule you. If you we get beat up through the year frankly, what really matters is what we learn from those games."
Highlands opens the season Aug. 14 at Beechwood. Game time is 8 p.m.