In a battle between the state runner-up and state semifinalist from last year in a game neither team deserved to lose, Highlands (18-3-5) edged the host and four-time 12th Region champion West Jessamine Colts (16-7-2), 5-4 on penalty kicks to record the 1-0 victory. West Jessamine won consecutive state championships in 2016 and 2017.
"Even before the PKs, the 90 minutes were hard-fought both ways," Dean said. "They didn't give us any good chances. We didn't give them any good chances. If you aren't a soccer fan, that's probably a boring game to watch. But if you're a soccer fan, that's soccer. That's the way it's played. Congrats to West Jessamine on a good year and a good kind of dynasty. I told the girls it probably gets boring and repetitive. But we do it for reasons like that. I want to shout out to my Mom and Dad (Karen Dean and assistant coach Joe Dean) for drilling me on practicing on PKs because they can win or lose the game."
Highlands plays host to 11th Region champion Lexington Catholic (18-6-1) in the state quarterfinals on Saturday. Game time is 4 p.m.
The teams went to penalty kicks in the semifinals of the winner's bracket of the annual Lexington Catholic Cup on Sept. 11. Highlands won the penalty kicks to take the game by a 1-0 score. LexCath beat 10th Region champion George Rogers Clark by the same score to advance in the Sub-State 6 game.
"I think it was a great test in the middle of the season," Dean said. "We're going to tweak some things that we did against them so hopefully, we can surprise them with a couple things. I'm sure they'll surprise us. We'll make sure we don't give up anything and try to put one or two in the first half and kind of go from there. We'll be ready to go. We're excited. We're just glad to be moving on."
Highlands put senior defender Lauren Deckert in at goal for the penalty kicks and Dean said her 6-foot-1-inch frame may have intimidated the Colts some. Deckert, a University of Louisville commit, also cleared a number of balls near the goal.
Deckert ended up saving three balls in the penalty kicks including a foot save on the first shot from West Jessamine's leading scorer in Mackenzie Tucker. Tucker finished with 36 goals and seven assists on the year.
Highlands shot first on the penalty kicks and senior Maria Broering made hers. After Deckert blocked Tucker's kick, West Jessamine senior goalkeeper Anna Rexford deflected sophomore Chloe Bramble's shot off the left post. Senior Hailey Cole then scored to tie the set of five at 1-1 after two rounds.
The third and fourth shooters from both teams in Deckert and sophomore Faith Broering for Highlands and seniors Audrey Henry and Sophie Bish for West Jessamine made their kicks. The fifth shooter for Highlands belted her kick high before Deckert made a foot save on junior Leah Hardin's kick.
That set up the sudden death rounds. The players on both squads wearing the number six made their penalty kicks on the sixth round in sophomore Jade Rehberger for Highlands and senior Caroline Absher for West Jessamine.
On the seventh round, junior Greta Noble stepped forward and buried her penalty kick in the upper left. Rexford then took a penalty kick and Deckert stopped to end the game.
"Not being a goalkeeper, it's like being thrown into a different sport, especially against (Rexford)," Deckert said. "I assumed she was going where everyone else was hitting it, which was a little bit to the left in the middle. That's probably going to be one of my favorite moments of my career at Highlands High School. The word would be indescribable. You don't want to let down your underclassmen and your fellow seniors. That's something you have to be able to step up to in the moment. I'm just glad that I was able to."
Highlands wound up taking 17 shots with nine on goal with West Jessamine taking 11 shots with nine on goal. Rexford made eight saves for the Colts and senior Rylee Thomas made seven for the Bluebirds.
Thomas had a close one with 4:02 left in the game. West Jessamine also had a tip with 1:36 that Thomas had to get on the ground to collect.
Thomas started the season playing defender. But injuries to senior goalkeeper Maggie Hinegardner and junior Jasmine Rehberger forced Highlands to put Thomas back there where she saw action last season.
"(That was a) great job by our defense like it's been all year," Dean said. "We've had confidence in them all year. We thought we could put one in on them, but we didn't. But Rylee was huge. It was nothing against her on the PKs. Without her, we wouldn't have even been in PKs. We saw some things in practice and went for them. Everyone on the field and even our bench was energetic and really helped us get the PK win."
The physical game saw West Jessamine commit 12 fouls to six for Highlands. Neither team had a yellow card or red card.
But the Colts had four corner kicks to two for Highlands. The Bluebirds also committed one offsides penalty.
West Jessamine came into the game with five players scoring 15 or more points on the season. After Tucker, Absher scored 14 goals and had four assists for 32 points.
"It honestly comes down to grit," said Kelsey Mathis, Highlands senior midfielder. "Our defense is strong all around. Any player (the coaches) put back there is going to give it her all. We're going to do everything we can to keep the ball out of the goal and try to our best. That's how you win games."
The game took place on turf at West Jessamine High School. The Highlands boys ventured down there in 2013 for the same round, but the game took place at the West Jessamine Middle School on grass.