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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Highlands Girls Soccer Head Coach Takes Job at Mount Saint Joseph

Bluebirds Own Three Straight Region Championships

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. The Highlands girls soccer team will have a new head coach next year after Alex Dean took an assistant job at Mount Saint Joseph in western Cincinnati.

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Alex Dean wants everyone associated with the Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team to know he enjoyed his three years there as the head coach and his time as an assistant for the boys program.

But Dean and his Dad, Joe, did some research on college positions and a part-time assistant job came open for the NCAA Division III Mount Saint Joseph Lions located in western Cincinnati. The Lions played in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Josh Hess is the head coach of the Lions. Hess completed his eighth season at Mount Saint Joe.

"Coach Hess and I had a great conversation about how to run things," Dean said. "He's been there for quite a while. I feel like he enjoyed what I had to say. We connected with our mentalities with training sessions as well as on the field. It just worked out really well."

Dean guided the Bluebirds to a school-record three straight 9th Region championships and three 36th District crowns. Highlands finished 15-2-2 in 2020 losing 1-0 on penalty kicks to eventual state runner-up Lexington Catholic in the first round of the state tournament at Tower Park.

"He did a great job with the team while he was here," said Wes Caldwell, Highlands Director of Athletics. "We're sad to see him leave, but happy that he gets to pursue his dream of coaching collegiately."

The Bluebirds drove all the way to the state championship in 2018 and 2019. The Bluebirds lost 2-1 to Louisville Sacred Heart in the 2018 state title game and 1-0 to Greenwood in the state championship game the following year. Maggie Stieby is one of nine seniors that graduates in a few weeks. They finished 58-11-7 the last three seasons.

Highlands owns two state championships and three state runner-up finishes in program history. But prior to 2018, the Bluebirds had not been to the state tournament since 2010. Highlands ended Notre Dame's run of seven straight region championships with a 1-0 over the Pandas at Ryle in the 2018 9th Region championship game.

"I'm beyond grateful for these years I had playing for him," Stieby said. "Soccer is something that has always been enjoyable and something I looked forward to. Having a coach who built a positive atmosphere is always important. I'm really glad I was able to experience that for as long as I did. I'm very happy for him to move to the next level. It's a really big deal. He played at that level. I'm sure he'll do great coaching at Mount Saint Joe."

The Lions finished 4-3-1 this past season. Mount Saint Joe concluded the season with a 2-1 win over Anderson (Indiana) University.

Hess helped the Lions win the HCAC Tournament in 2018. The Lions finished 16-3-3 that year losing 4-3 to Illinois Wesleyan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"Alex was a great addition to the program this spring," Hess said. "He joined during a very challenging moment in collegiate sports and he brought with him an injection of energy and enthusiasm that was very welcome. Alex brings with him a ton of playing and coaching experience that is relevant to our players and their experience so he is a really good resource for them to go to with questions or advice."

Dean still teaches fifth grade at Howell Elementary School in Erlanger. He said he would not mind coaching full-time at some point. But he's not looking for anything in the near future.

"It was unique for me to coach in the fall at the high school level and quickly get into the college game in the spring," Dean said. "We knew we were only going to play between nine and 10 games. We actually had a player who tested positive for Covid during our season and we had to cancel two of our games. We made up one."

Dean played college soccer at nearby Thomas More University in Crestview Hills. He is young enough to be able to relate to college soccer players.

"They're still girls who are trying to figure out what they want to do in terms of careers after (college). I know most college kids just go and worry about academics,"
Dean said. "They're kind of taking a challenge of being student-athletes. At Division III, they're not going to be ones that play professional so they're love for the game is really underappreciated at the Division III level. It's been great being able to work with girls from the ages of 18 to 22."

Dean said the Lions are taking aim at the Hanover College (Indiana) Panthers. Hanover finished 9-0 winning the HCAC championship. Maggie Hinegardner, a 2020 Highlands alum, started eight of nine games for Hanover recording a team-high 14 saves and allowing just one goal for a conference-best .203 goals-against percentage.

"Division III is still a pretty high level. Most of these girls were some of the top talents on their high school teams," Dean said. "They're bringing a lot of talent. We play some competition that plays at an extremely high level."

Teams can not offer athletic scholarships at the NCAA Division III level. But academic scholarships are available. Parker Price, a 2020 Highlands alum, is one of 15 players coming in next year.

"I've been pretty lucky. A lot of the tournaments are on the weekends," Dean said. "I've been free most weekends to go around and see different things. A lot of people reach out to Coach Hess. He's trying to teach me the ways in terms of recruiting so I've been in contact with many players in the tri-state area. There are not too many girls I'm reaching out to from around the country to come to Mount Saint Joe. It's been really nice getting the experience of communicating with some girls that are trying to take the next step of becoming college athletes."

The new head coach will have to find some players to fill roles at midfield and in the back. But the likes of junior defender Jade Rehberger, junior midfielder Faith Broering, sophomore midfielder Alyssa Harris along with junior goalkeeper Meg Gessner return.

The top four point-scorers return for the Bluebirds in freshmen forwards Laney Smith with 21 goals and eight assists for 50 points, Claire Cavacini with five goals and two assists for 12 points, Broering with 15 goals and six assists for 36 points and junior forward Chloe Bramble with six goals and nine assists for 15 points.

"We definitely have a lot of talent returning. We're still going to be a great team and I'm excited to see what a new coach brings in and what we can do next year," Rehberger said. "Our team chemistry will still be great."

Former Highlands Head Coach Nina Kearns assisted the team last year along with Olivia Huber-Bryant, Kelsey Etherton and Joe Dean. The Bluebirds won three region titles in four years under Kearns between 2005 and 2008. Highlands won consecutive state championships in 2005 and 2006 before finishing state runner-up in 2008. 

"We've put our search team out there and posted the job," Caldwell said. "We have some good applicants so far and we'll start interviewing some people here in the next couple weeks, find someone who meshes well with our administration and see if they're going to be a good fit for our girls."

Former Highlands player Kristen Pratt-Gerrein, a senior on the 2005 state championship team, is the Guidance Counselor at Highlands Middle School. She coached the Highlands JV team in 2011 and 2012 before taking the head coaching job at Walton-Verona in 2014. She coached the Bearcats to a record of 20-18-3 in two seasons. Walton-Verona finished 32nd District runner-up in 2015.

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