34th District Girls Soccer Preview: Dixie Heights, St. Henry expect more battles this year

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

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It had not been uncommon for one to win the regular season battle, only to see the losing team rebound to take the 34th District championship.

The St. Henry Crusaders struggled to a combined seven wins in 2020 and ’21 and missing the 9th Region Tournament two years ago. The Dixie Heights Colonels won three matchups in a row during those two years as a result.

But the intense battles returned last year as St. Henry edged Dixie Heights, 2-1 in overtime during the regular season before Dixie Heights won its third straight district championship with a 5-1 win.

Dixie Heights Colonels

The Colonels have made it to at least the region semifinals each of the past four seasons and five of the last six years, making the region championship in 2020.

During the past four seasons, the Colonels have seen their postseason nemesis Highlands end their season, including a 2-1 overtime win last year, their 14th straight loss to the Bluebirds.

Dixie Heights graduated nine seniors that finished 12-8-3, including goalkeeper Sarah Legg, leading point-scorer Ashtyn Ivey, Sammy Berman and Reese Smith. After Chris Sturm stepped down in the offseason, the program promoted assistant Kellie Ponchak to head coach.

“We’ve been right there,” Ponchak said. “Give props to Highlands and Notre Dame with some really good talent. They’re going to be just as tough this year. But what I’m looking forward to the most is just creating such a strong unit now because we don’t play them until late in the season, that by that point we’ve found our unit. We’ve found our groove. I just think we have the right players this year and it’s going to click at the right time.”

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The Colonels return a number of talented players starting with senior striker Karolyn Lighthall and two talented sophomores forwards in Aubrey Elkins and Hailey Hall. Hall returns after scoring seven goals and recording seven assists. Lighthall is the returning leading goal-scorer with eight.

“I think when we really start communicating with each other and working together, we’ll start finishing and the goals will come,” Lightall said. “Taking risks is important and I think we have a lot of people here who are willing to take those risks, doing whatever it takes to score. When we see the opportunity, we’re not going to let it go this year.”

Dixie Heights outscored opponents 67-24 last year. Juniors Abby Parsons and Keeley Polk anchor the midfield. Senior Maria Dilts could contribute on defense or midfield with junior Makenna Long contributing at forward or midfielder. Senior Hailey Kidd and junior Kate Riedmiller anchor the defense. Ponchak also said to look out for senior Ashley Schlitt and several players are battling for the goalkeeper spot.

Dixie Heights opens the season in the Fayette County Soccer Spectacular, taking on Henry Clay on Aug. 9.

St. Henry Crusaders

St. Henry finished 13-6-2 in 2022, winning a 9th Region Tournament game for the first time since 2018 thanks to the arrival of midfielder Mandy Schlueter, who tallied 35 goals and won the Kentucky girls soccer Gatorade Player of the Year.

Jarrett Baston hopes to build off that after the administration promoted him to head coach after Brian Bamberger decided to step down. Baston will have his work cut out with 10 seniors departed including Schlueter, who took her talents to Ohio State University. Other key losses to graduation are Lani Keipert and Cassidy Cline.

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The returning leading scorer is junior forward Avery Pleiman. Senior Aubrey Logan is also looking to help out up top with seniors Josie Knollman, Annalee Ernst and sophomore Jayne Knollman anchoring the midfield.

Josie Knollman had two goals and three assists for the Crusaders in 2022. Photo provided | Robert Lux

“I had the opportunity to coach many of these girls the two years prior being on JV and then moving up to varsity,” Baston said. “It’s been a really good mesh of people. I think it’s going to be a really good advantage because we’ve had the ability to become one team.”

Senior Avery Collins returns at goalkeeper. Seniors Kayla Unkraut, Alexa Riegler and junior Gabrielle Pitsic anchor the defense in front of her. St. Henry outscored opponents 82-38 last year.

“Our defense is pretty similar to last year,” Riegler said. “We have the same center back and then the same outside back so our chemistry is already there. We hope to continue to grow it and grow as a team altogether. I think it’s just one step at a time.”

The Crusaders open the season against Simon Kenton on Monday.

Ludlow Panthers

A new red turf field awaits the Panthers as they hope to build off a 9-9-1 season with Chris Bowen entering his second season as head coach. Bowen also said the team has new, red home uniforms so they might be able to blend in and use it to their advantage.

“They are off the charts with excitement honestly,” Bowen said. “Knowing we can practice four days a week, two hours a day on that field makes a huge difference. We can practice game time situations and they’re excited to be out there scrimmaging on a full-size field.”

Ludlow returns a good number of players after graduating just three players and brings back nine seniors. Senior forward/striker Quinn Dorger and sophomore Addy Garrett return after scoring 10 goals each last year. Seniors Serrai Bradd, Hannah Mutter and junior Riley Bowen will also play big roles up front.

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Opponents did outscore Ludlow 75-42, but senior goalkeeper Brooklynn Huff returns after making 61 saves and recording three shutouts. Key defenders in front of her are seniors Kayleigh Lawson, Emersyn McMillen and junior Madison Gillespie. Anchoring the midfield are senior Elizabeth Hibbard, sophomores Ruby Dorger and Gracie Jones.

Ludlow opens on its brand new turf on Aug. 8 against Bellevue.

Villa Madonna Vikings

The Vikings recorded the 100th victory in Glenn Rice’s tenure last year finishing 10-10-1. The key returning players are junior goalkeeper/midfielder Makena Lainhart, junior defender Megan Mahaney and sophomore midfielder/striker Macy Gumm. Lainhart had 173 saves last year and Gumm finished second on the team with 12 goals.

Villa Madonna has graduated 17 players over the past two years including Brooklyn Pickens, Kate McDonald, Sophia Schaeffer and Maddie Timm from last season. While that may be standard at bigger schools, Rice pointed out it’s a lot for a school the size of Villa Madonna. Rice listed the progression of the team defense will be a key this season.

“We have a lot of progress that we’re going to have to make this year,” Rice said. “We have a couple upperclassmen coming out as well so we’ve had a couple additions both as sophomores and juniors as well as a number of freshmen coming in, too. How fast we can integrate those kids into our culture is really important.”

Villa Madonna opens the season against Grant County on Aug. 7 at home.

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