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The Blue and White may not have been able to put this one away after a strong start.
But the Highlands Bluebirds girls soccer team (14-4-1 overall) has had its battles with the Dixie Heights Colonels (15-7-2) over the years and this one was no different. Highlands made its two goals in the first 20 minutes stand in a 2-1 9th Region semifinal victory Wednesday at Boone County.
"It's nice to play with a lead," said Chris Norris, Highlands Head Coach. "There's no doubt about that. That way the other team is chasing the entire time and all we have to do is be consistent. When you get a couple goals, it's like, 'Let's get some more.' I thought their defense tightened up and we weren't able to get anymore. But a 2-1 win in a situation like this is fantastic."
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The Bluebirds move on to the 9th Region championship game Saturday back at Boone County against the arch-rival Notre Dame Pandas (23-0-1). Game time is 7:30 p.m.
"It just shows how much we wanted it," said Macy Hedenberg, Highlands senior forward. "In life, if you want something more, it doesn't matter if they're better than you as long as you want it. Hard work beats talent. Notre Dame might be the more talented team. They might have more (NCAA) Division I commits. We're the underdog and that's what we want. You want the underdog mentality every time."
Dixie Heights unofficially had 16 shots to 14 for Highlands. Both teams recorded eight shots on goal. But Highlands senior goalkeeper Meg Gessner made seven saves to four for Dixie Heights junior goalkeeper Sarah Legg.
Dixie Heights consistently tried to boot the ball long to junior Ashtyn Ivey. She had some shots. But Dixie Heights also had three offsides calls. The Colonels did have four corner kicks to two for the Bluebirds.
"We just had to know she was staying wide every time and they were going to play the ball over top," said Ava Meyer, Highlands sophomore midfielder. "I had to think about not stepping in front and where I should be in position to be able to get to that ball even though she's fast."
The physical game saw both teams receive some calls and not others. Dixie Heights had 10 fouls and one yellow card to nine fouls and three yellow cards for Highlands.
The Bluebirds scored just three minutes, 53 seconds into the game and never gave up the lead. Senior midfielder Faith Broering took the ball from outside the upper left side of the box and fired a nice shot in for her 12th goal of the season to put Highlands up 1-0.
Highlands built the lead to 2-0 with 20:30 left in the first half. Sophomore forward Claire Cavacini scored her 12th goal of the season off the third assist of the year from sophomore Lindsay Stein.
"I wasn't really expecting it. It's more about your confidence in your shot," Cavacini said of the goal. "You have to believe in yourself to make it and I feel that's the biggest key to it."
Dixie Heights earned one back with 2:59 left in the first half. The Colonels earned a penalty kick on a play in the box. Dixie Heights sophomore Maria Dilts shot the penalty kick to her right, but Gessner blocked it. However, Dilts put in the rebound.
Dixie Heights had a huge chance with two minutes remaining when Gessner had to come out of the goal. Dixie Heights played the ball in. But Highlands cleared it and drew a free kick after a Colonel throw-in.
"I feel like our defense has gelled really well this season," Norris said. "I think they played with pride. I think they knew it was going to be a track meet. Speed isn't necessarily our go-to line of defense. But I thought they did a good job limiting the amount of clean shots. I thought they did a good job of pressuring and keeping (the Colonels) outside so that Meg had the space and time to clean up all the little messes. I think that's a sign of a good team."
Highlands and Dixie Heights have also met in the previous two postseasons. The Bluebirds defeated the Colonels, 3-0 in the region title game last year after eliminating the Colonels, 1-0 in overtime in 2019 on the way to a state runner-up finish.
The Bluebirds have won three straight region championships. They beat Notre Dame, 2-1 in the region title game two years ago at St. Henry and 1-0 three years ago at Ryle.
But the Pandas have won both meetings this year by 3-0 scores. The first game took place at Tower Park on Aug. 30 and the second one occurred in the title game of the Lexington Catholic Lady Knights Challenge Cup on Sept. 18.
"Back in August, we looked at the schedule and said this is going to be another rematch," Norris said. "Maybe we're good with our crystal ball. It's super hard to beat a team three times. I think we're walking in with a lot of confidence, especially after digging in hard and surviving that onslaught. I'm super excited to face a really, really good team. I think the 9th is going to represent well in the state."
The game will feature a pair of former Boone County boys head coaches. Norris led the Rebels from 2014 to 2018 and Notre Dame Head Coach Suli Kayed led the Rebels the following two seasons.
Highlands and Notre Dame own a combined five state championships. The Bluebirds won back-to-back crowns in 2005 and 2006. Notre Dame's three state championships came in 2004, 2011 and 2013.