|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Ben Seiter (19) plays the ball in the 36th District championship game against Newport Central Catholic last year. Seiter is one of nine seniors listed on the squad.|
It is not just the ultimate goal of the Highlands Bluebirds, but every boys soccer team in Northern Kentucky.
That's to be the first state champion from the area. Since the tournament started in 1972, the state champion has come from either Lexington or Louisville with the exception of 2006 and 2014 when the Bowling Green Purples won their two crowns. Louisville St. Xavier has the most titles with 12.
Teams from Kentucky's northern three counties have finished state runner-up eight times including Scott's 6-4 loss to Bowling Green in the title game last year. Highlands lost to St. Xavier in its lone appearance in the title game in 2008.
"We set goals early in the season," said Matthew Winkler, Highlands Head Coach. "There is a lot of talent this year for sure. We hope by Aug. 20 when we kick off the season, we'll be in line to be firing on all cylinders for the postseason."
The best news for the Bluebirds is Winkler said this squad is in the best shape it's been in during the pre-season since he became head coach in 2010. That's saying a lot for a team that has won two region crowns and two district championships during that time.
"They've been committed since school let out," Winkler said. "We've gone every day except dead period this summer. The boys have grabbed a hold of it and pushed each other. It's nice to be at a place where we can jump on the field and train twice a day compared to one training and one conditioning."
The Bluebirds enter the season off a 9-9-5 campaign last year. Highlands captured the 36th District championship before falling 1-0 to Boone County in the 9th Region quarterfinals at home. The Bluebirds overcame an 0-6-3 start to finish at .500 on the season.
Highlands graduated eight seniors from that team including goalkeeper Nick Breslin. Breslin took his talents to Transylvania University in Lexington after posting nine shutouts last year. The others are Adam Barbro, Brady Dean, Dakota Tate, Devin Dupont, Eric Schurr, Logan Groneck and Vadim Lightner.
The nine seniors hope to pick up the leadership roles. They are Ben Schweitzer, Ben Seiter, Ben Workman, Brady Gesenhues, Evan Ling, Jason Schreiber, Jasper Noble, Mark Baron and Noah Sellers. Gesenhues, Schweitzer and Sellers led Highlands with five goals each last year.
"We're just working together and trying to become like a family," Gesenhues said. "We need to grow and care for each other. We hope that translates onto the field."
"I think it comes through experience," Winkler said. "There are going to be breakdowns in the defense. It's about how you recover from them. We'd like our breakdowns to be small rather than large, open gaps that people can come through or a striker beating three or four defenders. When you get to this level, one goal makes a difference. Keeping a solid defense is critical."
Juniors Colton Wagoner, Ethan Mills, Parker Smith, Tommy Browe and Tommy Steppe are also battling for action along with sophomores Drew Rom and Nick Gish. Wagoner led Highlands with five assists last year.
Highlands outscored its opponents, 34-27 last year. Three of the times were the scoreless variety so the Bluebirds hope to finish opportunities better this year.
"I think it's getting comfortable with the players around you and knowing who's going to make what run and where they will be at the end," Sellers said. "That's what gets most of the goals I would say for us."
Highlands opens the season on Aug. 20 against defending 9th Region champion St. Henry at Tower Park. Game time is 8 p.m.