|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Ellie Farley (2) makes a move against Dixie Heights in a game last year. Farley is one of six seniors returning this season.|
But when it comes to the Highlands Ladybirds soccer program, many think of the likes of past great players like Sydney Hiance, Caitlin Beck, Leslie Twehues, Alicia Browning-Gesenhues, Kara Dickerson-O'Hearn, Megan Leahy, Amber Barth-Wells and Mallory Adler. Those greats among others helped the program on its impressive run of 80-11-11 between the 2005 and 2008 seasons. Highlands captured back-to-back state championships in 2005 and 2006 and a state runner-up crown in 2008 during that time.
While the current players can't be them, they've been trying to restore the tradition and took a huge step in doing that last season. The Ladybirds finished 12-9-1, captured their eighth district championship in nine seasons before losing 3-0 to Notre Dame in the 9th Region semifinals in Brian Wiefering's first season as head coach. Notre Dame lost in the state semifinals, 1-0 to eventual state champion South Oldham after winning its fourth straight region title.
The double-digit win season marked the first for Highlands since its last region crown in 2010. The return of many key players from that team helps narrow the gap if not catch the rival Pandas. Highlands has gone 1-8 against Notre Dame since that last region crown including two losses last season. Notre Dame owns state championships in 2011 and 2013 during that time.
Gone from last year are five seniors in forward Taylor Vaughn, defender Peyton Bankemper, Allyson Bridewell, Lydia Graves and Brooke Dougherty. Bridewell took her talents to Eastern Kentucky University and Vaughn signed with Wittenberg University. Graves will play basketball down the road at Georgetown College. Vaughn led Highlands in scoring last year with 13 goals and six assists.
In addition, Hannah Culyer and Kamryn Balson decided not to return for their senior years. Culyer finished second on the team with six goals last year.
"We built upon last year," Wiefering said. "I think their tactical knowledge of the game is right now maybe where it was midway through last year, which is awesome. It's going to take some of these younger girls to step up with the confidence. It will take these older girls to allow these younger girls to step up and play with confidence."
The players on the 2005 and 2006 state championship teams said everyone was a family. Wiefering said he's been trying to restore that type of atmosphere.
"It's something we did preach a lot last year and we met some resistance," Wiefering said. "But it did get a lot better toward the end of the year and I think our record kind of reflected that. The girls did get a lot closer. In fact, we had a two-hour intense meeting with all 58 girls and that's what we talked about - how to be a leader, how to be a family on the field, off the field."
Junior forward/midfielder Kayla Nehus has an older sister in Allie Nehus-Hanson who started at defender on the 2005 state championship team. Nehus said she's had talks with Hanson about that team. This year happens to mark the 10th anniversary of that championship.
"They were all like sisters," Nehus said. "They joined together in everything they did. It wasn't just one person's goal. It was everyone as a whole. They all worked to that goal and made it happen."
Nehus scored five goals and had five assists last year. She's the leading returning goal-scorer from last year along with senior midfielder Kylie Schuermann.
Schuermann is one of the six returning seniors. The others are defenders Megan Reynolds, Hayley Crothers, forward/midfielder Ellie Farley, midfielder Lauren Ossege and center midfielder Madalyn Wiefering. Farley said they realize where the leadership begins.
"Instead of a power struggle and having the seniors significantly overpowering the younger players, we're being leaders ourselves," Farley said. "We're having everyone think like they're a part of the team so it's not like the seniors are on their own."
Coach Wiefering said he's confident about putting 14 or 15 players on the field on the varsity level. But that could change daily. Two freshmen could see a lot of time in forwards Haley Dougherty and Lindsey Meyer.
"I worried how the juniors and seniors would react to that," Coach Wiefering said. "So far, they've been very, very welcoming to these two. I want 11 confident players on the field. I don't want scared freshmen on the field. I don't want upperclassmen who are frustrated they're not getting the playing time they want."
Both goalkeepers in junior Shannon Eaton and sophomore Olivia McQueary return from last year. They split halves last year, but that may not be the case this year. Coach Wiefering said he felt their skills were even last year.
Highlands finished the season 9-2-1 after starting 3-7. The Ladybirds recorded 10 shutouts outscoring opponents 42-30. Defenders like Annalee Brewer, Annie Schneider and sophomore Sophie Steppe played a huge role in that defense along with junior center midfielder Kiersten Clukey and junior defender/midfielder Claudia Hils.
Coach Wiefering said Highlands has been working on three formations. The strategy will depend on the personnel and opponent.
"We've worked a lot so far in the preseason on still pressuring the ball hard and not letting that free-flowing game from the other team take place, but being more organized on defense including our defensive mids," Coach Wiefering said. "That's not going to be much different from last year. I felt like last year, our back four didn't do bad looking at films. I think it was our mids getting out of position and leaving that middle open."
Coach Wiefering also said he wants to see the forwards come back to clear the ball. He said that could be a big difference in the win and loss column this season.
Seven other players hope to give Highlands depth this season. They are juniors Karolyn Lukjan at defender, Sydney Ossege (midfielder/forward) and sophomores Lily Lorenz (defender/midfielder), Kaitlyn Meyer (midfielder), Kylie Stave (forward/midfielder), Isabella Thomas (defender) and Molly Wiefering (center midfielder).
Highlands opens the season on Aug. 17 against Conner at Tower Park. Game time is 8 p.m.