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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Highlands Alum Showing Versatility at University of Cincinnati

Gessner Excited for Full Season

PHOTO: Cincinnati Athletics. Highlands graduate Ali Gessner hopes to help the University of Cincinnati to an American Athletic Conference Tournament title this year.

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Ali Gessner and the University of Cincinnati Bearcats women's soccer team have two exhibition games this week.

It marks the first two Cincinnati has held since the 2020 Highlands graduate set foot on campus as a student-athlete. The 19-year-old sophomore is looking forward to a full season this fall.

Meet Ethan and the team.

"Luckily, our team is awesome and we all work together and were lifting each other up during the hard times,"
Gessner said. "It was definitely helpful."

The Bearcats finished 5-5-1 this past spring. The Coronavirus 2019 Pandemic moved the season from the fall to the spring. 

Gessner first saw action for Cincinnati in the 3-0 win at Tulsa on March 7. She had her lone shot on goal that game.

"It was definitely crazy and intimidating, but it was more exciting than anything else," Gessner said. "Last year was definitely a learning year for me. It was good to experience something different. I think this year is just another year to learn, get better and work harder than we did last year."

Gessner also saw action in Cincinnati's two American Athletic Conference Tournament games. The Bearcats beat Memphis, 1-0 in the semifinals at Corbett Stadium in Tampa, Florida before losing 4-0 in the title game against the University of South Florida.

Gessner said going back to the AAC Tournament title game is the top goal. Cincinnati Head Coach Neil Stafford has led the Bearcats to one AAC Tournament crown entering his ninth season as head coach of the Bearcats in 2015 and said Gessner plays a valuable role in helping Cincinnati earn it. 

That 2015 team lost 4-0 to 12th-ranked Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats have driven to the NCAA Sweet 16 once in school history in 2001.

"She's just an unbelievable person - high character," Stafford said of Gessner. "I can always trust that she's going to make good decisions. She's got a great work rate. She's a competitor. Even at a young age, she's a leader. I think she understands what our culture of excellence means and she knows that means on the field, in the classroom, in the community and everything else. She's a great representative of the area she comes from. That's for sure."

Stafford said the staff likes Gessner's versatility. The 5-foot-7-inch player can play defender, midfielder or forward. Gessner said she's been training at midfield recently.

"I think it's good just to have an opportunity to play anywhere that they need me and hopefully provide options for them," Gessner said. "(It's about) having your timing right, getting in front of somebody and judging it the best you can (at midfield)."

Gessner said she mainly had to adjust to the physicality of the game at the NCAA Division I level from club soccer. She's been working on staying in top shape physically and on her first touches in the offseason.

Gessner is majoring in Business at UC. She earned a 3.9 grade-point average her freshman year.

"It's definitely difficult because it's a lot," Gessner said. "But I think that the staff and everybody around us helps us do a good job of organizing our days out, making sure we're getting everything in on time and having everything lined up for us."

Gessner played for Highlands as a freshman in 2016. The Bluebirds finished 20-3-1 that season winning the 36th District championship and driving to the 9th Region title game. Highlands lost 1-0 to Notre Dame at Tower Park. Notre Dame lost 2-1 on kicks from the mark to eventual state champion West Jessamine in the first round of the state tournament.

But Gessner ventured the club route her final three years of high school playing for Kings Hammer Academy Red before joining the Cincinnati Development Academy. Gessner helped CDA advance to the national playoffs in San Diego in 2018.

"I think you have to do whatever you think is going to be best for yourself. For me, it was playing club soccer," Gessner said. "Not that I have anything against high school, it was just a better fit (with) people I wanted to work with."

Gessner is not the first Highlands player to go the club route. Maria Wiefering played club soccer her senior year in the fall of 2019 and 2016 Highlands alum Brooklynn Rivers played club soccer exclusively her junior and senior year before playing at the University of Louisville. Wiefering plays at the University of Green Bay-Wisconsin in the Horizon League.

"You look at what the high school experience brings socially," Stafford said. "I think you can see how a kid leads when they're playing for their high school team and maybe they're not quite that leader for their club team and maybe they're a slightly different personality. We always embrace any route that the kid takes to get here. If they can play, they can play."

South Florida has won the last two AAC Tournament titles and three of the last four. Memphis won it in 2018. Stafford admitted the team has two relatively new assistants.

"I think it's about what we do in training. We've always got to make training as difficult as it can be. Training has to be harder than these games. They just came through a difficult preseason. There's been a lot of information thrown at them," Stafford said. "We talked (Tuesday) about the attention to detail in certain areas of the game that we felt we weren't disciplined enough in. What (Ali) does is hold people accountable. She's been great in training. She's been great in classroom sessions. That's the whole buy in thing. Everybody has a role. Everybody has a purpose. For sure, we respect Ali in that manner."

Cincinnati has one exhibition left on Saturday against the University of Dayton. The Bearcats travel across the river to face Northern Kentucky University to open the season Aug. 19. Game time is 7 p.m.

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