|Bluebirds Advance in Region, District Tournaments|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Luke Schweitzer (14) goes up for a header in the 9th Region quarterfinals against Cooper on Tuesday at Tower Park.|
But one thing did not change from the regular season. The Highlands Bluebirds boys soccer team (14-7 overall) used its speed advantage to down the visiting Cooper Jaguars, 3-1 in the 9th Region Quarterfinals on Tuesday at Tower Park.
Highlands once again used it to out-shoot the Jaguars, 25-7 including 16-3 on goal. Bluebird junior goalkeeper Will Burnham had to make just two saves while junior Austin Boles had to make 12 for the Jaguars (10-9-2).
"Once our guys got together in that last 10 minutes or so of the first half, we were back to how we started the game," said Chad Niedert, Highlands Head Coach. "Then the second half, I think they crossed (midfield) single-digit times it seemed. Our guys are ready to go. We were trying to make sure we're here to have fun and keep the season going as long as possible. Even though every game can be our last, we're trying to treat it like a normal game."
The win sets up a rematch with Covington Catholic (13-6-4) in the region semifinals. Highlands lost 1-0 to the Colonels in Park Hills on Sept. 12. The Colonels have won the region the last two years winning the whole thing in 2015 and finishing state runner-up last year.
Things started in the midfield where Highlands consistently won 50/50 balls and kept Cooper from moving the ball up-field. When the Jaguars did move the ball into the 18-foot-box, the Bluebirds cleared it quickly. Highlands had seven corner kicks to two for Cooper.
"When balls are played out, controlling the midfield is very important," said Blake Shuley, Highands senior midfielder. "You have to get the 50/50 balls to get up the field and we did really well on that (Tuesday). Hopefully, we can carry that momentum and bring that (against) CovCath on Thursday."
Highlands wanted to score in the first 10 minutes and did just that. Senior Elias Ordonez scored the goal on a penalty kick to put the Bluebirds up 1-0.
But the Jaguars did not trail for long. Senior midfielder Max Zorn scored off a corner kick to tie the game at 1-1. It stayed that way to halftime and 15 minutes into the second half even though Highlands had a number of chances but shot the ball above the net.
"I think because we were so dominant in the first 10 that our guys had the expectation that we could hit cruise control at that point," Niedert said. "We had a little bit of a lapse and that's when we gave up that goal and lost focus. They didn't have very many changes. That was one of the few and they just capitalized on it."
Highlands went ahead for good with 24:31 left in the game. Ordonez scored his 12th goal of the year to give the Bluebirds a 2-1 advantage.
"At this time of year, it's easy to say from my position on the sidelines we need to be a little more polished inside the 18(-foot-box)," Niedert said. "We need to finesse some of these finishes. But I've been there as a player. When it's the postseason, you get a little anxious. You want to be the guy that scores, but at the same time, you don't want to be the guy that screws up. We have to get beyond that. We just have to play. In the near future, these teams aren't any different than the ones we've seen all year."
The Bluebirds wanted to put up an insurance goal and it happened with 6:19 left in the game. Ordonez found Nick Gish down the left side for the score to make the final score of 3-1. That marked the third assist of the year for Ordonez and fifth point of the game and the 10th goal of the year for Gish.
"We don't want any dangerous shots on goal so keeping a full press on really helps there," said Drew Cavacini, Highlands junior defender. "Keeping the balls out of the back is our number one job. I think everyone in the back needs to be on the same page when we're back there. We did our job. Unfortunately, they got the one off the corner kick. But you live and you learn."
Highlands advanced to the region semifinals for the second year in a row. The Bluebirds beat Beechwood, 4-0 in the region quarterfinals last year.
36th District Semifinals:
Highlands 3, Dayton 0:
The Bluebirds (23-10) quickly dispatched Dayton in three games, 25-9, 25-5, 25-10. That set up the anticipated rubber match with Newport Central Catholic (19-16) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the 36th District championship back at Newport High.
With the win, Highlands made it to the 9th Region Tournament for the sixth straight year and recorded 23 wins in a season for the first time since 2008. That Highlands squad finished 28-8 overall, but lost to Newport Central Catholic, 2-1 (19-25, 25-11, 25-15) in the first round of the old 35th District Tournament back in the days of the blind draw.
"We've been saying all year that every point we play is in anticipation of the next game, the next tournament, the district title, going into the region so we don't take any game for granted," said Katelyn Sallee, Highlands Head Coach. "We take it as an opportunity to get better. That's what we did."
Highlands had 18 aces, 36 kills, one block, 36 assists and 32 digs. Sophomore setter Audrey Graves had six aces and 34 assists in the win. Margot Seidel and Ava Hockney had nine kills and Casey Dunn followed with seven. Seidel added six digs and Joy Kappesser had four kills and a block. Junior Olivia Gessner added four aces.
"Our record definitely shows how hard we've worked this past year to build it up," Gessner said. "I think this team works really well together. As a team, we're stronger than we are individually."
Highlands last won the 36th District championship in 2012. The last region title came in 2004 when the Bluebirds advanced to the state quarterfinals.