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The Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team recorded shutouts in 14 of their 15 victories during the Cornavirus 2019-shortened season.
Highlands outscored opponents, 66-8 on the season going 15-2-2 overall. The Bluebirds won a third straight 9th Region title before losing 1-0 to eventual state runner-up Lexington Catholic on penalty kicks in the first round of the state tournament. The Bluebirds had finished state runner-up the previous two years.
New Head Coach Chris Norris said he brings a defensive mentality that has made Highlands successful over the years. Norris, a Covington Latin alum, played midfielder and goalkeeper during his time at Northern Kentucky University.
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"It's organizing the defense and working everything out of the back to the front," Norris said. "For me, it's making sure they're playing at a very high, physical level and that they're thinking faster than what the game is. We'll start working on primary, secondary and tertiary runs almost immediately. There is constant movement across the whole field. Just to get a chance to work with high-level players again is what I'm probably the most excited about."
Norris brings 31 years of coaching experience to Highlands. That began in 1990 when his dad encouraged him to take coaching classes because his father coached a youth team but had not played a minute of soccer in his life. Norris had eight years of playing experience under his belt at that time.
Norris played with the former club team called the 77 Cobras in Northern Kentucky before going to Covington Latin. He coaches Under-5 and Under-8 teams before coaching an Under-12 team. He stayed with those players until they graduated. Norris has been involved with the game since he was five. He currently runs a youth program that has 120 girls and five boys.
"(My parents) signed me up at the (YMCA). Right away, I could see the game even younger," Norris said. "The concept of thinking anywhere from three to eight seconds ahead just always appealed to me. I don't think I ever had the talent to be a great player. But I had a mind for it and that helped. I would play and I would sometimes play all 11 positions on the field. I've always just had a great love for the game."
Norris said Highlands will run three formations based off team strengths and the way Bluebirds match up to opponents. They are the 4-4-2, 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 going from defenders to midfielders to forwards.
Norris served as the head coach of the Boone County Rebels boys soccer team from 2015 to 2018. The Rebels may have gone 20-50-8 during that time not advancing out of the rugged 33rd District to the 9th Region Tournament in those four years. But Norris dealt with many students who were not only new to Kentucky, but the United States.
"You're also dealing with just a little bit of a socioeconomic gap with a lot of the families," Norris said. "One of the most important things that the coaching staff and I focused on was getting these young men into the school, making sure that they felt comfortable and that they represented the school, themselves and the community. We did a lot of community service and team building. We would go as a team to watch volleyball, girls soccer. We'd go as a team to the football games. We tried to do everything as a team so that people were seeing us. It was huge for these guys because they didn't know a lot of people. They weren't related to anybody. They had to overcome a lot just to be seen in the school."
Norris added those players made friends across the sports at Boone County. A couple earned college soccer scholarships without playing club soccer. Some are graduating from college this year and have told Norris that would not have happened without their involvement at Boone County.
Norris teaches at Ignite Institute in Erlanger. It is a collaborative school with the Boone and Kenton County school systems.
"Most of our scholars will end up going to college," Norris said. "But it's for Engineering, Graphic Design, Computer Science, Nursing and Biomedical. When (St. Elizabeth) calls us in the next five to 10 years and says they're going 2,500 nurses short. That's a huge number for Northern Kentucky to be missing out on."
Ignite Institute is slammed with exams this week. But after this week, Norris will be able to devote more time toward putting together a coaching staff.
"A lot of people are calling and giving me recommendations for people," Norris said. "I'm pretty excited about that. I'm still pretty connected to the game around here. It's been pretty neat."
Supporters wondered if some returning players might play club soccer only because a new head coach was not named for a few months. But freshman Laney Smith said she will return to play for the Bluebirds this fall.
"I personally really, really liked the team," Smith said. "Especially because of the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic, it was hard to connect with the team. You had to social distance. On the field, I feel we all connected emotionally and that's what I really liked about it. We all got along. There wasn't high school drama. It was a fun atmosphere. That's why I'll be coming back."
Smith led Highlands scoring 50 points last season. Smith also had a team-high 21 goals to go with eight assists.
"I think there's a lot to be said about chasing glory for yourself and I think there's something to be said about representing your community, your friends, your school and your town," Norris said. "That's a bigger deal more so than anywhere in the world. Here you really get a big opportunity to do that. High School sports really fit into the American psyche. If your dream is to get to that professional level as fast as possible then sometimes high school soccer isn't the right fit. Sometimes, you're on an accelerated career path and you have to do what you have to do. But that badge on your shirt means a lot."
Highlands graduates eight seniors from the 2020 season. Half of them are defenders including Greta Noble, Kelsey Listerman and Kenzie Nehus.
But the Bluebirds do return their top four scorers. The other three are Claire Cavacini with five goals and two assists for 12 points, junior midfielder Faith Broering with 15 goals and six assists for 36 points and junior forward Chloe Bramble with six goals and nine assists for 15 points. Other key returners are senior goalkeepers Hailey Parks, Meg Gessner along with senior defender Jade Rehberger, junior forward Macy Hedenberg and junior midfielder Alyssa Harris.
Fall tryouts normally occur around July 15. The first games take place in early August.