|Bluebirds Win Early Battle of 9th Region Powers|
|Highlands freshman striker Laney Smith (1) pursues the ball along with Notre Dame senior Riley Hemmer. Smith had a goal and assist in the 2-0 Highlands victory.|
By G. Michael Graham
The road to state has gone through these two girls soccer teams in the 9th Region since the realignment in 2012.
They saw how they stacked up against each other in the third game this season. The Highlands Bluebirds (2-0-1 overall) came away with the 2-0 victory over the Notre Dame Pandas (2-1) in Park Hills.
"We've taken every game game by game from Wednesday to Thursday in our first two games," said Alex Dean, Highlands Head Coach. "Then from Thursday after that tie, we hopped right into that mindset of playing Notre Dame. It's a testament to the girls and them understanding our main goal. That's getting back to the state championship and bringing home a title."
Veterans such as senior Kenzie Nehus have played in this rivalry a lot. They understand the importance of playing emotion, but not getting emotional.
"We make sure our heads are in the game," Nehus said. "We have to make sure our mind is to win. Our minds are for the main goal and that's it."
Notre Dame had 16 shots with 12 on goal compared to seven for Highlands with four on goal. But Highlands junior goalkeeper Meg Gessner stopped nine shots in the second half and senior goalkeeper Jasmine Rehberger stopped three.
"First off, I always say never be scared of the ball," Gessner said. "Never be scared of the player either. You have to cut off your angles. You have to make the goals seem smaller and you seem bigger. Then they're more scared of you. You always have to communicate with your back line and always have everybody marked, especially your back side and your front side."
Highlands overcame another physical game against Notre Dame. The Bluebirds had two fouls, eight free kicks. They overcame four corner kicks. The Pandas had three offside calls and seven fouls.
The Bluebirds led 1-0 at halftime. Senior forward Jenna Hartung played a ball to the middle of the box and freshman striker Laney Smith put it in the right corner with 9:50 left in the first half.
Notre Dame did everything it could to tie the game in the second half on its home turf. But the Bluebirds did a good job clearing balls. The Pandas saw some shots and corners go high or wide.
The Bluebirds did not put the insurance goal in the back of the net until 3:15 remained in the game. Junior forward Chloe Bramble took the ball down the right side. After recovering a loose ball, Bramble crossed the ball to Smith. Junior midfielder Faith Broering put in the deflection.
"It was great to see that and even if we didn't put it in, we were going to get our second shutout," Dean said. "We had the mentality that we talked about the last couple years, which is, 'Hate to lose.' If that passion, it exceeds loving to win. All 11 girls did a great job. It's great to see we can still create chances even if we push back defensively a bit."
Smith continues to lead Highlands with four goals and an assist for nine points. Broering and Hartung share the team lead with two assists each. Broering also has two goals for a total of six points.
Smith admits she's learned a lot from her well-known grandfather. That's legendary Highlands boys basketball and Northern Kentucky University coach Ken Shields.
"I feel you should never ever back down," Smith said. "If you have the right mindset, you can beat anybody as (Coach Shields) always says no matter how big you are, how skinny you are. As long as you can get the ball around someone, there's always a place for you on the team."
Highlands plays in the Lexington Catholic Cup starting Monday. The Bluebirds open with Louisville Sacred Heart. The two met in the semifinals last year when Highlands won 1-0 in overtime and in the 2-18 state championship game that Sacred Heart won 2-1.
Highlands will play again Wednesday and Saturday. The Bluebirds finished runner-up in the tournament to Notre Dame last year. They last won it in 2006.