|Bluebirds Set for Rematch Against Valkyries in State Semifinals|
|Highlands senior Maria Broering boots the ball in a recent game. Highlands takes on Louisville Sacred Heart in the state semifinals at Lexington Bryan Station on Thursday at 8 p.m.|
A year ago, the Highlands Bluebirds soccer team (19-3-5 overall) made it all the way to the state championship game for the first time in 10 years, but lost 2-1 to the Louisville Sacred Heart Valkyries. The driving force for this season has been making it back to the title game and winning it.
The Bluebirds have to beat the seven-time 7th Region champion Valkyries (24-1-2) in the second semifinal game Thursday at Lexington Bryan Station at 8 p.m. 16th Region champion Ashland Blazer (20-0-2) and 4th Region champion Greenwood (21-2-3) face off in the first semifinal game at 6 p.m.
Sacred Heart is rolling once again under second-year Head Coach Libbey Smith. Smith came over from Oldham County in the winter of 2017.
"These kids are really passionate about what they do and they just really love the game," Smith said. "I think what is kind of special is I've never seen kids who enjoy their teammates more. They truly embody what it means to play for each other."
The Valkyries have outscored opponents, 93-8 on the season with 19 shutouts. Since the Lexington Catholic Cup, Assumption and Highlands are the only teams to score goals on the Valkyries. The last time Sacred Heart did not make the state tournament came in 2012.
Compared to just four seniors last year, Highlands has 10 this season. Senior defender Lauren Deckert was recently named First Team All-State and the East Team Player of the Year and senior midfielder Parker Price was named Second Team All-State.
Senior defender Tatum Price along with the likes of senior midfielders Kelsey Mathis and Natalie Ossege along with junior defenders Greta Noble and Jordan Steumpel have all played a huge part in the success of the Bluebird defense. Senior Jordan Halpin has also played well up front at forward.
"Last year was fantastic with leadership with those four girls," said Alex Dean, Highlands Head Coach. "But just doubling or tripling your number of seniors helps out that much more because they understand it's their last ride with the program and they are cherishing these last couple games. It makes it more meaningful for those underclassmen also when they have 10 players going for their last shot at a state title."
Ashley Durik, who scored 31 goals and nine assists for 71 points. Durik took her talents to Cornell University of the Ivy League.
"We've been scoring a lot more by committee, by teamwork," Smith said. "It is reflective. We've scored fewer goal. We've still gotten the wins, but that was something we had to flush out early in the season. (Durik) was such a prolific scorer."
The Valkyries have balanced scoring with 18 different players scoring a goal this year. Senior forward Callie Birk leads the way with 17 goals and five assists with sophomore forward/midfielder Mallory Glass contributing 12 goals and five assists.
"(One-on-one) defense is going to be very important. That's something we're going to work on (leading up to the game), but also team defense," Dean said. "If we get beat one-on-one, (it's important to) make sure we have coverage to help out. We've been working on that throughout the year."
Sacred Heart has had two players at goalkeeper this year. Junior Amanda Isaacs has seven shutouts and senior Eliza Kelly has nine per the KHSAA web site.
On the other side, Highlands has outscored opponents, 78-21 with 11 shutouts. Dean wanted the Bluebirds to have four players score double-digit goals and three have made it. Sophomore forward Chloe Bramble leads the way with 15 goals and eight assists for 38 points with senior forward Maria Broering scoring 13 goals and adding 10 assists for 36 points. Sophomore midfielder Faith Broering has 10 goals and 13 assists for 33 points. Creators such as junior midfielder/forward Kenzie Nehus, junior midfielder Maggie Stieby and sophomore defender/midfielder Jade Rehberger have helped out there tremendously.
Senior midfielder Rylee Thomas has played at goalkeeper the past couple games with the injury to junior Jasmine Rehberger. But after the first half of the 2-1 win on penalty kicks (4-1 Highlands) against Lexington Catholic in the state quarterfinals, senior Maggie Hinegardner made her season debut.
"We have faith in both," Dean said. "We're just going to look (leading up to the game) to see who can help us out. I know both girls can. We'll just see what's best for the team. I know they'll be accepting of whatever choice we make."
Highlands played at Sacred Heart to finish the regular season on Oct. 31 and lost 2-1. The Valkyries have won six in a row in the series dating back to a 1-0 Highlands win in the annual Lexington Catholic Cup on Sept. 6, 2016. But the Bluebirds know they can't worry about that or any other game in the past including the two state tournament victories on Thursday.
"I would say definitely this year, we're closer as a team," Thomas said. "That has really helped us win a couple games because we know it can't just be one person who does everything. We all are a part of it on the sideline, in the game or wherever. We can't let who we're playing make change how we play and the teamwork. We can't get hung up on what we did wrong. A loss is a loss. We keep our heads high and move on."
Highlands has won both state tournament games on penalty kicks while Sacred Heart has yet to have to go to them in the postseason. The Bluebirds went seven rebounds to beat West Jessamine in the sub-state five game before only going four to beat Lexington Catholic.
Highlands and Sacred Heart have a history in the state tournament. The Bluebirds beat the Valkyries, 1-0 in the 2006 state championship when Bramble's half-sister, Highlands 2008 graduate Amber Barth-Wells, scored the game-winner in the last two minutes.
But Sacred Heart came back to beat Highlands, 2-0 in the 2008 state championship game. Sacred Heart has six state championships, which is second in the state behind seven from South Oldham.