State champion head soccer coach takes over Highlands boys

G. Michael Graham
G. Michael Graham
Mike Graham covers sports for LINK nky

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Suli Kayed said it would have to be the right fit for him when he stepped down as head soccer coach from the Notre Dame Pandas in March.

About three months later, Kayed found that right fit taking the same spot with the Highlands Bluebirds boys soccer program. Kayed takes over after Brandon Ponchak resigned recently after one season to take an assistant coach position for the Jacksonville State women’s program.

“I knew I wanted to go back to the boys side and Highlands is a top three program here in Northern Kentucky,” Kayed said. “The goal is to make it the premier program. I do like Fort Thomas. What I like about the field they play at Tower Park, there’s always people out there playing soccer. It’s a passionate community when it comes to sports. I’ve coached some of the Highlands boys before. I’m fond of the families I’ve gotten to work with in the past. To be honest, I prayed about it. I wasn’t eager to jump on something. Something told me this was the right time.”

The Denmark native brings four years of head coaching experience to Fort Thomas. He led Notre Dame to a 45-4-3 record the past two seasons including a 28-0-1 mark in 2021 that culminated with the fourth state championship in program history.

“It’s nice to finally solidify this position,” said Wes Caldwell, Highlands Director of Athletics. “We had a lot of good candidates. It’s great to give these boys some direction. He’s very professional for as young as he is. He’s very polished, very knowledgeable. That speaks to his soccer acumen. He’s a young body with an old soul. He’s got everything that you need in a coach and he’s somebody I’m very, very excited to have on staff.”

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Kayed has experience leading boys and girls programs. Kayed spent two seasons coaching the Boone County boys program in 2019 and 2020 leading the Rebels to a 12-13 record.

Kayed takes over a program that finished 14-5-3 last year, winning its seventh straight 36th District Tournament championship. The Bluebirds have lost in the region semifinals the last three years including a 2-1 decision to eventual state semifinalist Ryle at Covington Catholic last year.

Highlands graduated 16 seniors from last year’s squad. But the Bluebirds do return the likes of senior goalkeeper Jack Wilson along with senior midfielders Chad Gesenhues and Jack Haggard. Gesenhues is the team’s leading returning point-scorer with seven goals and seven assists for 21 points. Wilson made 45 saves and recorded three shutouts.

“As anywhere when a new coach comes in, it’s a new page,” Kayed said. “I met some of the kids (Wednesday) and we start (Thursday) morning at 6:45 a.m. so it’s all about setting the tone right now about what it means to play at a highly competitive program and what it means to play at a program that I am running as well.”

Kayed plans to put together a staff of six to eight coaches with two to three on the varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels including goalkeeper coaches. He said the assistants will come from his previous staffs at Notre Dame, Boone County and the club level.

Kayed said he’s looking forward to working with the man he succeeded at Boone County in Highlands girls soccer head coach Chris Norris. The two coached against each other the last two years facing off on opposite sides in the last two 9th Region championships. Highlands beat Notre Dame, 3-2 (4-3 on kicks from the mark) in last year’s region championship game after Notre Dame shut out the Bluebirds, 4-0 in 2021.

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“His fun personality has always kept us friends off the sidelines,” Kayed said. “I was in communication with him throughout this hiring process. I asked him what it’s like to be there. At the end of the day, Chris Norris is a really super guy. I see him on Monday nights playing indoor soccer sometimes playing with him, sometimes against him. But it’s somebody that really enjoys and loves the game. He’s stuck around for a long time. There are few of them in the community in northern Kentucky and he’s definitely one of them.”

Kayed played striker and midfielder for the Ryle Raiders and long-time head coach Stephen Collins before graduating in 2015 and going on to have a successful career at Thomas More. Kayed helped the Raiders to the 33rd District championship as a junior in 2013 and served as team captain in 2014.

Kayed said he barely spoke any English when he moved to the area. He had Collins as a history teacher his first year at Ryle. Collins helped Kayed through the classwork so he could play soccer in addition to helping with other areas outside of soccer.

“Coach Collins is still a mentor to me,” Kayed said. “We still talk not as often as we might have in the past. But we still speak often.”

Highlands last won the 9th Region championship in 2019 losing to eventual state champion Henry Clay in the state quarterfinals. The Bluebirds have state runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2018.

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