By G. Michael Graham
The victory song of the National Hockey League's second-oldest franchise in the Toronto Maple Leafs is Right Back Where We Started From sung by Maxine Nightingale.
The Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team (15-1-2) had every reason to celebrate along those lines after accomplishing a first in the program's long and storied tradition. The Bluebirds won a third consecutive region championship with a 3-0 victory over the Dixie Heights Lady Colonels (15-3-1) on Wednesday at Tower Park.
Highlands recorded its eight straight shutout win as a result. The Bluebirds have 14 shutouts on the season.
That marked the ninth region crown overall for the Bluebirds. Highlands won six in nine years between 2002 and 2010. Notre Dame stopped the chances for three-peats in 2004 and 2007.
The Bluebirds edged the Pandas, 1-0 in 2018 at Ryle ending a run of seven straight Notre Dame region crowns then 2-1 last year at St. Henry. But Dixie Heights beat Notre Dame, 2-1 in the semifinals on Monday at Tower Park marking the first time since 2005 that the Pandas did not play for a region championship. Highlands had to beat Dixie Heights, 1-0 in overtime in the region semifinals last year.
"Huge credit to Dixie (Head) Coach (Chris) Sturm and his staff for getting the girls well-prepared. We played teams back-to-back that had great records," said Alex Dean, Highlands Head Coach. "I think Monday (a 3-0 win over Cooper) really helped us out understanding these are some teams that in the past might have struggled a little bit. They are hitting their stride in the postseason. That win (over Notre Dame) on Monday was not an upset. We talked to the girls and the girls understood that. They're a great team that is disciplined and makes the other team work for it. We told the girls Notre Dame took them lightly and that's what happened so we made sure we did not take them lightly. We respected them and their great season and we still respect them after beating them 3-0. It was a great job of our girls wanting to win. We've been in this spot and that experience has been huge."
Highlands plays in the first round of the state tournament at Tower Park on Saturday against either 43rd District rivals Lexington Catholic (12-2-1) or Lexington Lafayette (10-3-2). The two play for the 11th Region championship Thursday at Great Crossing High School in Georgetown at 6 p.m.
The Bluebirds outshot the Lady Colonels, 9-4 with four shots on goal. Highlands senior goalkeeper Jasmine Rehberger had one save in the first half and junior goalkeeper Meg Gessner recorded two in the second half.
"We've talked about the hustle all year," Dean said. "We outwork the other team. Our skill is matched to our opponents. We had some girls play more minutes than usual. Our bench was kind of thin kind of due to physicality that Dixie put out there."
Dixie Heights recorded 11 fouls including one yellow card and Highlands had six. Both teams had one offsides call.
The Lady Colonels took some long free kicks as a result. One from near midfield went through Rehberger's hands wide right with 9:38 left in the first half. Gessner stopped another one with 37:10 left in the game. Rehberger said herself, Gessner and the third goalkeeper in junior Haley Parks have worked on situations like that.
"We tried to prepare for every climate in terms of that," Rehberger said. "However, every game situation is different. On the one that went through my hands, I knew it was going wider than the goal so I went for it. I honestly didn't grab it hard enough and that's on me. I'll take the blame for it. But every single person came up to me and said, 'Hey Jasmine. Let it go. Move on and keep going.' They believe in me. I believe in them. That's the mentality we have on this team. It's amazing. You can make a mistake and still come back."
Highlands did not achieve the goal of scoring in the game's first 10 minutes. But the Bluebirds managed one before the first 20 minutes ticked off the clock. Junior defender Jade Rehberger took a goal kick and played a long ball ahead to junior forward Chloe Bramble on the right side. Bramble outraced several Dixie Heights defenders to score her sixth goal of the season.
Bramble earned the 9th Region Tournament Most Valuable Player award for her third straight game-winning goal in the region championship. Bramble is third on the team with 21 points.
But the Bluebirds made sure they added insurance goals this year. The second one of the first half came with 1:23 by none other than the team's leading goal-scorer in freshman forward Laney Smith. Highlands cleared a Dixie Heights corner kick to Smith. Smith laid it off to Bramble giving the Bluebirds a two-on-one advantage. Bramble passed it back to Smith on the left side. Smith made a few moves before scoring her team-high 21st goal of the season. That also marked the ninth assist for Bramble this season good for second on the team.
"I could tell (Bramble) was going to play me out wide if I ran out wide," Smith said. "I knew I had enough of a wide run that I could take a touch in. Chloe and I really get each other on the field. I always keep telling myself to keep calm and don't hit (the ball) over (the net). I tell myself to take a nice touch and tap it in. I did that."
Jade Rehberger took all seven Highlands corner kicks to three for Dixie Heights. She landed her second assist of the game and a team-high 11th of the season with 4:51 left in the game finding junior midfielder Faith Broering for the final goal of the game.
That is the 15th goal of the year for Broering. She also has six assists for 36 points.
Senior defender Greta Noble, senior versatile player Kenzie Nehus and senior midfielder Maggie Stieby made the all-tournament team. They've made huge contributions to the team including the 2018 and 2019 state runner-up squads.
"We gave it everything we got," Nehus said. "We played every second like we're down one and it's the intensity we keep up. We all make sure we're ready to go from the start. You never know what's going to happen."
Dean credited the Highlands players not in the game along with the coaches and managers for standing up cheering on the team the entire game. Some players not in game sit down if the team is down at certain points.
"The biggest thing is teaching the team aspect of family," Dean said. "If you have a family member that's down in real life, you need people to pick you up. If you do something wrong on the field, you have family picking you up - girls encouraging you. We're really getting that family culture and it's been three straight years. That's really what drives our success. Our coaching staff is fantastic, but the girls get all the credit with the way that they come together and do it for each other."
Highlands beat Lafayette, 4-0 on Oct. 3 in Fort Thomas. But the Generals played that game without one of their best players. The Bluebirds did not play Lexington Catholic this year. But the two met in the region quarterfinals at Tower Park last year and Highlands won 2-1 (4-1 on penalty kicks).