Bluebirds Reload for Shortened Season
|Highlands junior Jade Rehberger (6) returns after contributing last season.|
By G. Michael Graham
The Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team has found itself playing on the last day of the post-season the last two years.
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Unfortunately, the Bluebirds have not been able to bring home the gold trophy finishing state runner-up both times. They lost 1-0 to Greenwood in the title game last year in Lexington.
Highlands had some question marks entering Alex Dean's third season as head coach. But some questions received quick answers in the preseason.
"To start the year, we were eager to see who was going to come out, especially with the (Coronavirus 2019) Pandemic," Dean said. "But we were very impressed with the amount of girls we had try out (and) also who we had come out. I think we definitely replaced some of our spots that we thought we were going to miss. We feel with what we have coming in, we can have another chance at a state title."
Highlands also lost 2-1 to Sacred Heart in the title game in 2018. But the Bluebirds beat the Valkyries, 1-0 when Chloe Bramble booted one about 25 yards past Sacred Heart goalkeeper Eliza Kelly in the semifinals with two minutes, 37 seconds left in the first overtime.
"I kind of jokingly say we're the second-best team in the state and they kind of get mad at me," Dean said. "They know that it's all something that we want. Losing in heartbreaking fashion two years in a row is something that we don't want to do again. I know we have some newcomers. But they witnessed the pain in our seniors and juniors."
Highlands did graduate 10 players from last year. The Bluebirds finished 20-4-5. A number of them are playing at the next level. Defender Lauren Deckert is down the road at Northern Kentucky University and forward Maria Broering is at Ball State University of the Mid-American Conference in Muncie, Indiana. Broering had 13 goals and 10 assists for 36 points last year. Twins Parker and Tatum Price at midfielder and defender signed to play at National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics Milligan University (Tennessee), but are no longer there. Goalkeeper Maggie Hinegardner is playing at Hanover College and defender Katelyn Helminiak is playing at NCAA Division III Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio and midfielder Natalie Ossege signed with the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg (Kentucky). Rylee Thomas is playing at Campbellsville-Harrodsburg.
Two others graduated. They are forward Jordan Halpin and midfielder Kelsey Mathis.
Highlands is only able to play two-thirds of a regular season at 14 games this year because of the pandemic. But the fact the team is having a season is not lost.
"Obviously, this year is very unique compared to year's past," said Maggie Stieby, Highlands senior midfielder. "But we have even more of a desire to win because we haven't been able to play with each other the past couple months, especially with this being my senior year. I want to make it the best possible."
Highlands does return its top scorer in Bramble, a junior forward. Bramble had 16 goals and eight assists for 40 points. Junior midfielder Faith Broering also returns after finishing third with 10 goals and a team-high 14 assists for 34 points.
The Bluebirds named their three senior captains in goalkeeper Jasmine Rehberger, defender Greta Noble and Kenzie Nehus. Nehus can play all three positions. Rehberger played goalkeeper for most of the season until Hinegardner returned in the postseason. Juniors Meg Gessner and Hailey Parks are also battling for time at goalkeeper this year.
Noble returns from a defense that allowed just 22 goals last year. Highlands shut out 13 teams last year.
"But we have some really solid girls coming up as well as some girls that are going to be moved around to play in the back," Noble said. "I think that we're going to be able to work together really well to move (the ball) around and make sure that our backs are able to get forward and really get into the game."
A number of others could emerge at forward including senior Kelsey Listerman. Listerman, who also plays basketball, came out after not playing last year. Other candidates at forward are senior Jenna Hartung, junior Macy Hedenberg, sophomore Anna Melson and three freshmen in Claire Cavacini, Laney Smith and Lindsey Stein.
Three other seniors are listed on the roster. They are defenders Anna Kidney, Jordan Steumpel and Katelyn Vaught. Senior Ashley Herfel is managing since she is unable to play.
Three other juniors in Jade Rehberger, Hailey Barton and Margo Brandenberger could make impacts at defender. The other junior in Carly Dickman hopes to make contributions at midfielder.
Two sophomores could also see action. They are Alyssa Harris at midfielder and Bianca Hemsath at midfielder or defender.
"It's not just the coaches, but the players," Dean said. "They all expect the highest out of themselves and their teammates. I feel like we can get ready for our first game. Just having that two years that we've put in as a program has helped us jump real early into the season."
Highlands opens the season with four road games. The Bluebirds play at Ryle on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.