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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

2021 Highlands Girls Soccer Preview

 Highlands Hopes to Gel Quickly on Defense, Midfield

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands forwards Claire Cavacini (5) and Chloe Bramble (right) get in position during a corner kick against Newport Central Catholic in the 36th District Tournament title game last year. Highlands returns its top five point scorers from last year including Bramble and Cavacini.

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It's been the best run in program history in terms of region championships.
The Highlands Bluebirds soccer team has gone 58-11-7 the past three seasons winning a school-record three straight 9th Region titles. Highlands finished 15-2-2 last year in the Coronavirus 2019 Pandemic-shortened campaign.

The Bluebirds hoped to drive back to the state championship game after finishing state runner-up in 2018 and 2019. But after winning a fifth straight 36th District Tournament crown and beating Dixie Heights, 3-0 in the 9th Region Title game at Tower Park, Highlands lost 1-0 (4-3) to 11th Region champion Lexington Catholic on kicks from the mark in the first round of the state tournament, also at Tower Park.

In the offseason, Alex Dean took an assistant coach job at NCAA Division III Mount Saint Joseph University in western Cincinnati. The school hired Chris Norris as the new head coach. Norris previously served as head coach of the Boone County boys soccer program. Norris brought back former Highlands player Kelsey Etherton back as an assistant coach.

The Bluebirds do return their top five scorers point scorers from last year. Sophomore forward Laney Smith burst onto the scene last year scoring 50 points on 21 goals and eight assists. Senior midfielder Faith Broering finished second with 36 points on 15 goals and six assists with senior Chloe Bramble recording six goals and nine assists for 21 points. Bramble emerged late as a freshman in 2018 scoring the lone goal in the 1-0 win over Notre Dame in the 2018 9th Region title game.

The next two leading returning scorers are senior defender Jade Rehberger with 15 points on one goal and a team-high 13 assists. Sophomore forward Claire Cavacini also returns after scoring 12 points on five goals and two assists. Those five accounted for just more than 68 percent (134-of-197) of the team's points last year.

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"We're working a lot with playing faster off the ball,"
 Norris said. "We're working a lot with building camaraderie with the new players coming through because they have tremendous experience in the postseason. We want to make sure they all understand what mentality it's going to take to win in October."

Highlands graduated nine seniors from last year mainly on defense and in the midfield. They are defenders Greta Noble, Kelsey Listerman, Anna Kidney, Kenzie Nehus, midfielders Maggie Stieby, Jordan Steumpel, forwards Jenna Hartung, Kate Vaught and goalkeeper Jasmine Rehberger. In addition, midfielder Alyssa Harris decided not to return for her junior season.

Senior goalkeeper Meg Gessner returns after splitting halves with Jasmine Rehberger last year. Senior goalkeeper Hailey Parks saw action in three games on varsity last year.

"It's definitely different," Parks said. "We all just have to learn to become a family like we were last year. I mainly work on communicating with them just by being open and honest and making sure we're all on the same page."

Senior Hailey Barton looks to step in at defender along with junior Bianca Hemsath. Both have some varsity experience. Sophomore Ava Meyer is also looking to fill in at defender. Norris credited Jade Rehberger for taking initiative.

"Jade is a fantastic leader," Norris said. "She's been leading a lot of the stretches, a lot of the early morning things, a lot of the things that we need from a senior leader. Jade epitomizes that wonderfully."

Three other forwards return with varsity experience. They are senior Macy Hedenberg, junior Anna Melson and sophomore Lindsay Stein. Freshman Kate Fausz could also step in at forward this year.

Highlands could receive some help from some players who have been on the dance team throughout high school. Seniors Lindsay Thompson, Lucy New and junior Ruby Smith have come out after not playing soccer since junior high. Thompson and Ruby Smith hope to contribute at midfielder and New hopes to contribute at forward. Ruby Smith and New are cousins. Norris said Ruby Smith contributed immediately upon stepping on the field.

Thompson noted a huge difference between dancing and soccer. Dancers perform routines for about two minutes and soccer players run in different directions for a long time.

"We've always missed playing and miss being on the field," Thompson said. "We just decided to come and try it and we're feeling really motivated to work and get better."

Defense has been a huge key to the recent run. The Bluebirds have outscored opponents, 258-47 these past three years including 66-8 last year.

"We will definitely have to work a lot with our defensive organization," Norris said. "(It's about) making sure that our goalkeepers, our new defenders thoroughly understand how to shut down the passing lanes and then of course get that ball to our midfielders as smooth and quick as possible."

Highlands has 16 games on the schedule. The first game is Aug. 12 against Beechwood in Fort Mitchell. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

The Bluebirds have won two state championships in school history winning consecutive crowns in 2005 and 2006 and finished runner-up three other times. Highlands won region crowns three out of four years between 2005 and 2008 finishing state runner-up in 2008.

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