By Terry Boehmker
CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. – The Notre Dame girls’ soccer team that started the season with mostly first-year starters in the lineup is back in the hunt for a state title.
Notre Dame defeated Highlands, 3-0 in the 9th Region championship match on Saturday at Dixie Heights High School to earn a berth in the 16-team state playoff bracket for the third consecutive year.
The Pandas (20-2-3) will play at Region 12 champ West Jessamine on Tuesday, with the winner advancing to the state quarterfinals on Saturday.
But don’t let Notre Dame’s impressive record fool you. The road to the state playoffs hasn’t been an easy one, according to senior midfielder Ellen Combs.
“We kind of slacked off in the middle of the season,” Combs said. “It never quite got the best of us, but it was close. I think when the whole team talked it through we had some team bonding and we were able to work through our issues, and we picked up our intensity from there.”
The upturn in intensity has carried the team to a 12-0-1 record in its last 13 games, including five consecutive shutouts in district and regional playoff games.
In the 9th Region final on Saturday, the Pandas scored on three of their 13 shots on goal while limiting Highlands to just one shot in each half.
The aggressive play of senior center midfielders Maddie Tierney and Combs were the main reason Notre Dame controlled the flow of the game.
“We have a lot of experience in our midfield. That was one of the strengths we had returning so they’ve definitely stepped up,” said Notre Dame coach Sara McSorley. “Tierney and Combs in the center have been a really strong asset for us and we’ve learned over the season to leverage our outside mids in the best way possible.”
Combs scored the first goal in the regional final at the 8:13 mark. The ball came to her off a deflection and she kicked it into the net.
Less than four minutes later, junior midfielder Carissa Dyer dribbled into open space and booted a line drive from 20 yards out that sailed over the head of the Highlands goalkeeper to give the Pandas a 2-0 lead.
Notre Dame junior Mandy Arnzen, who had a shot on goal go over the crossbar in the 23rd minute, got another opportunity to score and made the most of it.
Highlands had trouble clearing the ball on a throw-in and the ball rolled into the penalty area. Arnzen got to the loose ball first and poked it into the corner of the goal in the 35th minute.
“I think (leading) 2-0 is somewhat dangerous because the momentum could shift at any time,” McSorley said. “That third was huge for us to make sure we could carry the momentum (into the second half).”
Highlands tried to pick up its offensive attack in the second half, but Notre Dame’s defense was equal to the challenge and the Bluebirds got only one shot on goal.
“They’ve been playing pretty solid all season long,” McSorley said of her defensive unit. “But I know they’re getting a lot more intense pressure this time of year and they’re answering well in regards to the competition by supporting each other really well.”
Notre Dame sophomore sweeper Libby Greenwell was named to the region all-tournament team. The team’s other three nominees were Dyer, Arnzen and Combs, who received the most valuable player award.
“She’s been fantastic all year long,” McSorley said of Combs. “We’ve been lucky she’s been able to get some offensive production. But she’s always been a hard-worker, always creating havoc in the midfield and really earned everything she’s got in this tournament.”
Combs was asked if the Pandas can make a strong run in state playoffs even though she’s one of the few starters returning from last year’s state runner-up team.
“I think we got the same question last year when we won state our sophomore year and we lost 10 seniors,” Combs said. “I think every year we just have good players to come back and take on (winning) state again.”
HALFTIME: 3-0. GOALS: ND—Combs, Dyer, Arnzen. SHUTOUT: Hansel and Kim (2 saves). RECORDS: Notre Dame 20-2-3, Highlands 8-8-5.
Notre Dame – Ellen Combs (MVP), Libby Greenwell, Mandy Arnzen, Carissa Dyer. Highlands – Lauren Daly, Kelsey Etherton, Brooklynn Rivers. Ryle – Karlene Zembrodt, Claire Stockwell. NewCath – Sam Bunzel, Loren Zimmerman. St. Henry – Hayley Leedom. Dixie Heights – Lauren Nemoroff. Beechwood – Jessica Schilling. Boone County – Payton Black.