|Ryle Tops Bluebirds, 3-1 for 9th Region Championship|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Nick Gish fires a penalty kick earlier in the week against Covington Catholic. He is one of six seniors on the team that finished 15-8 this year.|
But the bottom line is it worked. The visiting Ryle Raiders let the Highlands Bluebirds dribble into the attacking zone of the field then counter-attack in the 9th Region boys soccer championship Saturday at Tower Park. The Raiders walked away for a 3-1 victory and their first region championship since 2011 when they finished state runner-up losing 3-0 to Louisville St. Xavier in the state championship.
Highlands (15-8 overall) made its first appearance in the 9th Region championship game since beating Newport Central Catholic, 1-0 in the region championship in 2013. The Bluebirds had beaten the Raiders, 2-0 in Union. But like last year, the Raiders (21-2-2) beat the Bluebirds in the tournament. The only difference is last year's game was a 1-0 score in Union in the region semifinals.
Highlands out-shot Ryle, 17-11. But the Raiders had nine shots on goal to six for the Bluebirds. Highlands junior goalkeeper Will Burnham made six saves and Ryle junior goalkeeper James Spindley had four.
"We made mistakes and they capitalized. They made mistakes and we didn't capitalize," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "We've given goals up some goals (like the second one) in the past. I attribute those to some of the losses we had earlier in the year that we shouldn't have. It just happens. We gave everything we had, especially in the second half. We had dominated the second half. We just didn't start that way."
Ryle scored just 13 minutes, 21 seconds into the game when senior forward Austin Brownell put one past Burnham. The second goal came with 13:47 left in the half by Chris Prastana. Ryle led 2-0 at halftime.
Highlands appeared to cut into the lead just 3:49 into the half. But an off-sides call nullified the goal. Ryle saw Mitchell Wartman score a few minutes later to put the Raiders up 3-0.
The Bluebirds did get on the board with 31:04 left in the game. Junior Carter Holmes dribbled into the 18-foot-box and drew a foul. He put the the penalty kick past Spindley.
Highlands graduates six seniors off the team. They are Joe Broering, Brady Finnegan, Alan Ford, Nick Gish, Elias Ordonez and Blake Shuley. The group helped Highlands to three 36th District championships in addition to this year's appearance in the region title game. Holmes, Burnham and Ordonez made the all-region squad. Ordonez finished the year with a team-high 27 points on 12 goals and three assists. Gish finished with 26 points on 10 goals and six assists.
"The six seniors have been our backbone for the whole year," Niedert said. "Early on, we were trying to figure out what our best starting 11 was. By the time we had the majority of them starting, it was pretty clear those guys were ready to bring it every opportunity they had."
But the Bluebirds have a strong junior class returning next season. The Junior Varsity team won the 9th Region JV championship.