‘Not soft’: Highlands, Notre Dame battle to 1-1 tie

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Few thought Monday’s Highlands-Notre Dame girls soccer match would be a low-scoring tie.

But it was – a 1-1 lockup at Tower Park in Fort Thomas.

“I’m never surprised by anything that happens at this point in the season when these two teams get together,” Notre Dame coach Brian Woeste said. “I knew it was going to be a tight game, I will say that. I thought we would win just because I’ve seen us in the last few games, and I thought our preparation was tight.”

Highlands coach Chris Norris, meanwhile, offered a six-word summary.

“These two teams are not soft,” he said. 

Both goals were a matter of persevering in a maelstrom of Pandas and Bluebirds in front of the nets.

Notre Dame junior Megan McGraw scored first – her shot in the fifth minute beat Highlands goalkeeper Natalie Hinegardner from about six yards out. The play began with Hannah Knapke’s corner kick.

“It hit off our defender, Carlyn Tranter, because she was trying to get a head on it,” McGraw said. “And then I was just lucky enough to be behind her. It all works out.”

Highlands’ Franny Smith answered some 16 minutes later – her shot made it to the lower left corner and past Pandas keeper Hannah Renaker.

“I was doing what we practice a lot, and that’s driving baseline using our flanks,” Smith said. “But I felt like I could take the last girl on and saw the back post, and that’s what I did.”

Were there other scoring chances? Absolutely yes.

In the 40th minute – just five seconds before halftime, actually – Notre Dame’s Riley Robertson had a clear shot, except for the ball clanking off the crossbar.

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Three minutes into the second half, a largely unmarked McGraw took a pass from Hannah Knapke, but Joelle Hentz collected one of her team’s four saves.

Notre Dame’s most frightful moment came in the 53rd minute – seconds after Laney Smith sent a crossing pass, Hentz slipped and fell. It didn’t hurt – Hentz recovered, and the Pandas cleared the ball.

What was equally important, at least for Notre Dame: The Pandas (14-3-2) kept Highlands’ (13-2-2) top two scorers, Laney Smith (19 goals and 14 assists going into Monday) and Claire Cavacini (18 goals, six assists) off the scoresheet.

Notre Dame went with a 3-5-2 alignment (three fullbacks, five midfielders and two forwards) most of the night. Woeste said before the game not one player would be assigned to mark Smith or Cavacini.

“In our system, all my kids are good enough to play their position and not have to man-mark anybody,” Woeste said. “Megan McGraw’s been our anchor at the defensive midfield all year.”

Notre Dame’s most frightful moment came in the 53rd minute – seconds after Laney Smith sent a crossing pass, Renaker slipped and fell. It didn’t hurt – Renaker recovered, and the Pandas cleared the ball.

The last 20 minutes were noteworthy for some chippiness – for the night, Notre Dame had three yellow cards, while Highlands had two yellows and a red.

“I think there’s a lot of emotions in a game like this,” Woeste said. “It’s late in the season, the girls want it really bad, there’s a ton of people in the stands. I think that sometimes gets the better of us. If I’m being honest, I think the referees could have probably done a better job getting it under control, but we have to manage our emotions in those situations.”

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Norris thought Monday was a fantastic game.

“When you have two of the top programs in the state playing against each other, you know it’s going to be a fantastic game,” Norris said. “I think we gave the people what they paid for.”

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