In recent years, it seems like the Highlands Bluebirds soccer team puts together great seasons when they have a roster filled with seniors numbering into the double digits.
The Bluebirds had 11 seniors on the roster last year and 10 in 2013. Highlands won the 9th Region before falling 3-1 to eventual state champion Lexington Dunbar in the state quarterfinals in 2013.
The Bluebirds posted an 18-3-2 record last year. They captured the 36th District championship before beating Beechwood, 4-0 in the 9th Region quarterfinals for their first region tournament win since 2013. But the run ended in the 9th Region semifinals as Ryle eliminated Highlands, 1-0.
Head Coach Matthew Winkler also resigned in the off-season and the Highlands administration promoted assistant Chad Niedert to the head coaching position. Niedert brings one year of head coaching experience to the table. Niedert guided the North Oldham Mustangs to the 8th Region crown in 2013. The Mustangs finished 20-5-1 that year losing 1-0 to Bowling Green on penalty kicks in the state quarterfinals.
"It was great to already have (Coach) Niedert (promoted)," said Joe Broering, Highlands senior midfielder. "We had him running a lot of the stuff last year so we knew how he wanted to shape the team. We just want to keep going in the right direction and improve on what (the seniors) did last year."
After taking off in 2014, Niedert served as an assistant the last two years. He teaches math at the high school.
"This is my third year with this program," Niedert said. "Over the last couple years, I'd taken on more responsibilities. There's not a lot that's new to the guys. The guys pretty much know what to expect from me."
Highlands will start the year with 17 playing on varsity. They started the season with 18 on varsity last year. Teams can carry up to 22 on varsity during the season.
"We're only going to get better because we have a deep pool of guys that are finding ways to get better every day," Niedert said. "The only reason we are fostering lower numbers than in previous years overall is we want to make sure our best guys are getting the time that they need. Nobody is getting anything sitting the bench. Our top 17 have been impressive in try-outs and they're even more impressive in training. They're comfortable with each other. We have a bright future. I really believe this team can make a run beyond what we did last year."
Highlands played two goalkeepers last year outscoring opponents, 72-16. Paul Tully and Simon Frink graduated after playing one half each between the pipes last year. Junior Will Burnham has emerged to take over there and sophomore Nick Fischer will back him up.
"(Burnham) will be playing 80 minutes barring if something happens," Niedert said. "Even more so with goalkeepers if they're not getting minutes, Nick Fischer is not going to get anything out of sitting the bench for varsity just for the sake of being on the varsity team. The plan is to play him on junior varsity to get minutes. He'll continue to train with varsity to continue to push Will. They have different skill sets. But they're both very strong. Goalkeepers need to keep everyone organized and on the same page."
Highlands hopes to play three defenders in the back. Junior Alex Ford and Devin Harris return there. Juniors Will Hochleutner and Drew Cavacini could battle for time back there as well. Highlands graduated Tommy Steppe and Parker Smith from the back last year. Tommy Browe also graduated for the Bluebirds from last year's team.
The four seniors in Alan Ford, Nick Gish, Broering and Blake Shuley will play in the midfield along with another senior in Brady Finnegan, who came out this year after not coming out last year and junior Mike Penrod. The midfielders who graduated are Aaron Williams, Colton Dolezal, Brandon Zachary and Ethan Mills. In addition, senior Drew Rom decided not return this year in order to focus on baseball. Gish had 26 points last year on eight goals and 10 assists. Soccer teams place an emphasis on winning 50/50 balls in the middle and Highlands is no different.
"It is definitely one of the most important things when you have things like goal kicks," Shuley said. "Fifty-fifty balls are one of the things good teams dominate at. When you win the 50/50 balls, you have the opportunity to advance forward and have the opportunity to take a shot on goal. We're definitely striving to improve that at all of our positions because it's definitely a key to winning games."
Highlands graduated leading goal-scorer Solomon Farris, Ethan Mills and Collin Ginter from the forward spots off last year. Junior Luke Schweitzer and Carter Holmes hope to step in those roles up front. A pair of freshmen in Porter Hedenberg and Alexander Foubert are battling for time at the outside midfielder spots along with freshman Max Farris.
"We have a lot of skill from those attacking positions. In the last two years, we've had some skill there. Don't get me wrong," Niedert said. "But we've relied more on the speed there with the guys that have played out wide. We've got some guys that can be really dangerous from the outside. They're guys you like to see go 1-on-1 on film and things like that."
Highlands has two scrimmages against Boone County in the Soccerama Scrimmage on Saturday at Covington Catholic at 3:30 p.m. before facing Cincinnati Moeller on Aug. 8 at 7:15 p.m. at Tower Park. Moeller's head coach is Mike Welker, the husband of former Highlands Ladybird great Megan Leahy-Welker.
Highlands opens the season on Aug. 15 at 8 p.m. against Covington Holy Cross. Highlands has 11 home games this year. The challenging schedule includes road games at Louisville Trinity and Louisville Collegiate. Collegiate won the All "A" State Tournament last year the 26th District and 7th Region championships before losing 2-0 to Covington Catholic in the state quarterfinals last year.
FORT THOMAS MATTERS: 2 17 Highlands Boys Soccer Preview