|Bluebirds Seek Return to Region Championship Game|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands junior Connor Mathis returns at goalkeeper this season for the Bluebirds. He recorded 54 saves last year. Highlands shut out seven opponents.|
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The Highlands Bluebirds boys soccer team had grown accustomed to playing for 9th Region championships since the administration promoted Chad Niedert to head coach between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
But for the first time since that promotion, the Bluebirds did not play for the crown last fall. They finished 10-4-2 in a season delayed and shortened as a result of the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic. Highlands won its fifth straight 36th District championship with a 6-0 win over Newport Central Catholic. But after defeating Covington Holy Cross, 2-0 in the region quarterfinals at Tower Park, Highlands lost 3-1 at Ryle in the region semifinals.
Highlands had played in the region title game three straight seasons winning it in 2018 and 2019. The Bluebirds lost 1-0 to Louisville St. Xavier in the state championship game in 2018 before losing 2-1 (4-3) on penalty kicks in the state quarterfinals at Tower Park against eventual state champion Lexington Henry Clay in 2019.
"We have every reason right now to think we can get back (to the region championship game)," Niedert said. "But with last year's results, we have a chip on our shoulders. We realized that nothing is given. We have to make sure we're earning every bit of it."
The Bluebirds graduated 11 seniors off last year's team including four-year starting forward Max Farris. Farris led Highlands with nine goals and three assists last year for 21 points. Highlands outscored opponents, 46-19 and shut out seven.
The team leader in assists with nine in Brayden Gillman also graduated. A third 10-plus point scorer in Austin Frazier is also gone. The other eight to graduate are Jack Banks, Gabe Beiting, Hank Cook, Ben Fischer, Eli Karnes, Hank Slaby, Colton Vogt and Carter Smith.
Highlands is carrying 16 players on the varsity roster including 10 with varsity experience. Niedert listing the fact that many guys can play at different positions. He said a lot of the junior varsity players can contribute at the varsity level. But the staff will not be able to figure that out until they go up against competition.
Highlands lost 4-0 to Covington Catholic just four games into last season. But the Bluebirds fixed some things and figured out their identity after that.
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Junior forward Colin Pieper is the team's leading returning point scorer with seven goals and five assists for 19 points. Senior forward Jordan Frisk is next with four goals and two assists for 10 points last year.
"I definitely think we'll have a different style of play this year scoring-wise," Frisk said. "In practice, we worked on one, two touch simple passing and playing quick. Wide and early (with Farris) was our main option (last year). Since we do not have that, we're going to have to improvise."
The team lists eight seniors total. The other five with varsity experience are defender/midfielder Joel Kendall, defenders Nick Robinson, Sam Jones, Thomas Gray-Torsell and midfielder Cole Lorenzen. Two senior newcomers to varsity this season are defender Sawyer Tate and forward Wyatt Thompson. Lorenzen is thankful the team does not have to wear masks and have temperature checks every 20 minutes.
"I didn't know this before. But seniors have a big leadership position," Lorenzen said. "I think we have a mix of very vocal people and people with good skill. I'm normally not that talkative. I'm going to try to get more vocal."
Three juniors with varsity experience return this year in goalkeeper Connor Mathis, midfielders Peyton Helminiak and Caden Schroeder. Sophomore Jack Wilson could also play goalkeeper. Mathis recorded 54 saves last year.
Two juniors and a sophomore add versatility to the team. Junior Casey Stiles could play all three field positions and junior Brady Stiles could contribute at defender or midfielder. Sophomore Chad Gesenhues could play midfielder or forward.
Highlands automatically qualifies for the 9th Region Tournament because only the Bluebirds and Newport Central Catholic have boys soccer teams in the 36th District Tournament. The goal is daily improvement in hopes of playing its best soccer in the postseason.
"I think our guys are in a position where we're able to be out here," Niedert said. "We're about as sharp as we ever were on the first training. We'll see a lot of build-up play this year. We should be fun to watch."
Highlands opens the season Aug. 12 at Tower Park against Beechwood. Game time is 8 p.m.