By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
LEXINGTON – They had nothing to lose at this point.
The Highlands Bluebirds boys soccer team came into this state quarterfinal game as the underdog to the top-ranked Lexington Paul Lawrence Dunbar Bulldogs. The Bluebirds gave a great effort in a 3-1 loss Saturday at Henry Clay on a turf field. Dunbar controlled the ball most of the game earning 16 shots on goal to three for Highlands.
“(Dunbar is) really skilled,” said Matthew Winkler, Highlands Head Coach. “They’re a good team all the way around. We were prepared for it. We came out and had some really good scouting on them. The information proved to be pretty accurate. Marking them is pretty tough. But they left it here. That was our whole goal, win or lose. I think they feel the same, too.”
Dunbar (24-1-2) struck just 2 minutes and 18 seconds into the game. Junior midfielder Tyler Joy-Brandon crossed the ball from the left perfectly to senior forward Nathan Jones for the score.
Highlands had a chance to tie the game with 34:12 left in the first quarter. But Cole Davis-Roberts’ free kick was wide right.
The Bulldogs had a chance to add to the lead with 23:21 left in the first half. Senior midfielder Riley Calhoun drew a penalty in the attacking box. But Highlands goalkeeper Nick Breslin slid to his left and stopped the penalty kick.
Dunbar had another excellent chance with about 20 minutes left in the half Calhoun crossed one in the box to Jones that Jimmy Penrod blocked out of bounds. The Bulldogs did score on the corner kick but were offside.
Highlands created another excellent chance with about 11:30 left in the half. They crossed one into the box but Josiah Farley got to it before Colin Dean could get his feet on it.
The Bulldogs did go up 2-0 with 8:47 left in the half. The Bluebirds could not clear the box and senior forward Jean-Samuel Poirier buried it.
Dunbar finished with four shots on goal in the first half to two for Highlands. Farley stopped both Bluebird shots and Breslin saved two Bulldog attempts. Farley had two saves for Dunbar.
Dunbar kept everyone back in the second half. That made it tough for Higlands to get shots off.
“We knew it was going to be a tight game,” said Todd Bretz, Dunbar Head Coach. “We knew they were going to play hard the entire game so being able to go up 2-0 was important.”
The defense kept the Bluebirds in the game. Goalkeeper Nathan Tippenhauer made several diving saves. Tippenhauer had nine saves for the Bluebirds in the second half.
Highlands found itself a man up with 9:06 left in the game after Joy-Brandon drew a red card meaning an ejection from the game. The Bluebirds quickly took advantage. Colin Dean crossed one to Noah Sellers with 8:35 left in the game to cut the Bulldog lead to 2-1.
“The boys played pretty well,” Winkler said. “I think emotion gets involved a little bit. You lose track of your full objective at some points in the game. They are high school boys. That’s normal.”
But despite that, Dunbar answered 17 seconds later. Jones fed Nelson Ng in front to give the Bulldogs the 3-1 advantage.
“They capitalized very well,” Bretz said. “Sometimes after you capitalize, you let down. We were able to capitalize on their mistake. It was big because it gave us more cushion.”
Highlands had a good chance to cut into the game with 3:35 left in the game. But Davis-Roberts’ free kick was high.
“It’s a real bad feeling because you’re doing your best,” Davis-Roberts said. “They’re just so good offensively. You’re bound to get beat eventually.”
The Bluebirds made it this far for the third time in school history. They’d lost 3-1 to Scott in the same round in 2010 after beating Pendleton County, 3-0 in the 2008 state quarterfinals. The 2008 Bluebird squad then beat Henderson County, 2-0 in the state semifinals before losing 7-2 to 12-time state champion Louisville St. Xavier in the championship game.
The Bluebirds graduate 10 seniors. They are Alex Shepherd, Andrew Barnes, leading scorer Chris Garbig, Davis-Roberts, Dean, Penrod, Jordan Jarvis, Jovid Llerena, Mitch Gesenhues and Tippenhauer.
“We are a very close team,” Shepherd said. “It means a lot being able to go pretty far, especially your senior year. I hope (the underclassmen) carry (the tradition) on, continue to be a close team and eventually get (a state championship). We couldn’t do it here. But I feel like we had a good last game against the number one team in the state.”
Highlands finished 17-8-1 overall. The Bluebirds won the 9th Region after some thought they were done following a 2-1 loss to Newport Central Catholic in the 36th District championship game.