By Dan Wright
UNION, Ky. – Highlands got goals from four different players Tuesday night to defeat Ryle, 4-0, in the quarterfinals of the Region 9 tournament played at Ryle’s Clifford Borland Stadium.
Just as impressively, the Bluebirds kept Ryle from scoring for the first time since the Raiders tied Henry Clay, 0-0, in their second game of the season on Aug. 21.
"We had a preview of them 12 days ago of them, and we worked this whole week on defense, so our defense was nice and tight all the way around," said Highlands head coach Matthew Winkler. "We know that our defense has been a little bit here and there all season, so we wanted to focus on that and fine tune it for today."
The result was one that was much different than when the Raiders defeated the Bluebirds, 1-0, to conclude each team’s regular season on the same field, Oct. 10
"We just stayed on our marks and played good collective defense as a team and made sure that we kept that clean sheet," said senior goalkeeper Nathan Tippenhauer. "We didn’t want what happened in the regular season to happen tonight."
Tippenhauer made six saves in the second half after junior Nick Breslin made seven saves in the first half to combine for Highlands’ seventh shutout of the season.
"We’re super fortunate to have two talented goalkeepers," said Winkler. "So it’s fantastic to be able to switch them and not lose anything off of it. They both have excellent shot stopping, are excellent off the ball and getting off their line. So it’s good to keep them both fresh just in case you have that weird situation where something happens and they’re both in tune and ready to go."
While Highlands only had 11 shot on goal to Ryle’s 13, the Bluebirds made the most of their chances, starting when senior Mitchell Gesenhues snuck the ball into the far post off an assist from senior Andrew Barnes just over 10:19 into the game.
With 4:19 left in the half, Highlands doubled its lead when senior Jordan Jarvis sent a ball into the box that Barnes directed just under the post and into the net.
"The way our system is set up is to control the box," said Ryle head coach Stephen Collins, "and we didn’t the control the box. We let them control the box, thus the reason they were able to put four goals on the board."
Sophomore Brady Gesenhues added to Highlands lead with 28:48 left in the game, scoring off a throw-in from senior Colin Dean, putting the Bluebirds firmly in control.
"Getting that third goal helps a lot," said Winkler. "A 1-0 or a 2-0 lead is very nerve wracking. A 3-0 lead you can feel a little bit better about it."
Sophomore Noah Sellers finished off the scoring by putting back a rebound with 3:02 left in the game.
"We have a lot of talented players and people were just in the right place at the right time," said Winkler. "The reason we have four different goal scorers is because they are all working hard to get to where they need to be."
The loss knocked Ryle out of the regional tournament in the first round for the first time since 2005, although Collins said just making it this far was an accomplishment after losing several key players from last season.
"We lost the bulk of our scoring and we lost our keeper and that makes it tough, but this senior group really stayed together," Collins said. "The two captains, Cray (McCarthy) and Connor (Hutcherson), really pushed them and the progression from Day 1 to now was fantastic. This team did far more than our expectations."
Highlands, meanwhile, advances in a regional tournament for the first time since winning the 10th Region title in 2010. The Bluebirds will face Dixie Heights in the second of two semifinals on Thursday back at Ryle, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30.
"We haven’t played them yet so I’m not really sure," Tippenhauer said of what to expect from the Colonels, "but they have to be on a tough spot if they made it this far in the season," said Tippenhauer.
HALFTIME: 2-0. GOALS: H—M. Gesenhues, Barnes, B. Gesenhues, Sellers. SHUTOUT: Breslin and Tippenhauer (13 saves). RECORDS: Highlands 14-7-1, Ryle 14-6-2.