|Bluebirds to Rely More on Defense This Year|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. The Highlands girls soccer team hopes to reload for another strong postseason run after coming inches from a state championship last year.|
Unfortunately, it proved to be over to the right a couple inches too far and deflected off the right post. Had it gone in with 25:45 left in the game, the Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team might have packed it in and gone home with the third state championship in school history. But the Louisville Sacred Heart Valkyries scored the game-winner on a free kick with 15:50 left from 30 yards out leaving the Bluebirds with their second state runner-up finish in school history in a 2-1 defeat.
"I think a lot of it still hurts from last year. We haven't really talked about it much and it's kind of nice," said Alex Dean, second-year Highlands Head Coach. "But I can see it in them, they definitely want to get back to the state title game and win it this year. That's kind of why the seniors have been leading by example and giving it their all. The underclassmen have taken that in and once the season starts, we're going to kind of get into that talking about it more and having the coaches kind of adapt to get that culture back. The girls have definitely been ready to go. Seeing that and not really having to force that is good to see."
Highlands graduated four players off that team that finished 23-5 winning the 36th District and the 9th Region championship. The Bluebirds beat Notre Dame, 1-0 in the region title game ending the seven-year run of region championships for the Pandas.
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The main loss to graduation was four-year starter Lindsey Meyer, who took her talents to nearby Northern Kentucky University. Meyer had 28 goals and 16 assists last year for a grand total of 72 points. She finished her career as the school's all-time leader in all three categories with 75 goals and 45 assists for 195 points.
Highlands also graduated defenders Gwen Gorman, Hannah Hartman and midfielder Hanna Buecker. The team's second-leading scorer in Maria Wiefering also decided not to come back for her seniors year. Wiefering had 17 goals and 10 assists for 44 points.
Highlands may not have that dominant scorer this year. But Dean said he could see three or four players scoring double-digit goals. That includes some midfielders.
Highlands outscored opponents, 113-17 including 19 shutouts. Dean said the goal is to score early, rely on the defense to shut out the opponent then finish the game with a couple goals in the second half.
"I'm seeing a lot of things similar to last year, especially with communication," Dean said. "One thing we really stress is defense and if all 11 of us are working our tails off and we don't give up a goal, we can't lose."
Highlands saw 53 players try out this year and the team had to cut none of them. The leading returning scorer is junior forward/midfielder Kenzie Nehus. She had 12 goals and eight assists for 32 points. Senior forward Maria Broering returns after scoring nine goals and two assists for 20 points. Broering is committed to Ball State University. Sophomore Faith Broering could also play at forward or midfield.
Twins Parker and Tatum Price are committed to Milligan College, a private National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics team in northeast Tennessee. Parker Price could play either defender or midfielder and Tatum Price plays defender.
The Bluebirds return several midfielders in seniors Jordan Halpin, Natalie Ossege and juniors Greta Noble and Maggie Stieby. Sophomore Jade Rehberger could also see time at midfield.
"I feel the midfield is kind of the backbone of the entire game in a way," Halpin said. "The midfield is where you receive the ball. It connects the defense and the forwards. Our team has some young girls ready to play and some of our best players are in the midfield."
The defense will be lead by senior University of Louisville commit Lauren Deckert. She'll be joined by senior Katelynn Helminiak, Kelsey Mathis and junior Jordan Steumpel. Senior Maggie Hinegardner returns at goalkeeper and junior Jasmine Rehberger could also see playing time there.
"It's going to be very important this year. We need to have four solid backs that keep communicating with each other, with other people on the team," Helminiak said. "I like to think of the four backs as the eyes. Everything is in front of them. It's important to know each other and embrace everyone's strengths and weaknesses."
Highlands plays in the annual Lexington Catholic Cup this year and also travels to the Zionsville (Indiana) Invitational to face two Indiana teams in Carmel and Evansville Memorial. The Bluebirds also play two teams from Cincinnati in Indian Hill and St. Ursula.
"They are some pretty awesome games. We play a lot of the top teams in Ohio and Indiana," Dean said. "The idea is to get us ready for the postseason. If we go 0-20, it's getting us better. So it's making sure once we get into districts, we're ready to go. The regular season doesn't matter. As soon as it's over, it's a whole different thing."
Highlands opens the season on Aug. 19 against Notre Dame at Tower Park. Game time is 8 p.m.