Dixie Heights standout Lauren Nemeroff remembers the exhilaration of winning the Ninth Region girls’ soccer tournament. It happened three years ago when the Colonels won during her freshman year.
“We can do that again,” said Nemeroff, a University of Kentucky recruit. “It takes a lot of hard work because we know that Notre Dame has a lot.”
In Nemeroff, a versatile midfielder who can play forward, Dixie Heights has something that only defending state champion Notre Dame Academy can boast – a returning all-state first-team selection.
Notre Dame welcomes back 15 players, including all-state senior striker Mandy Arnzen, from last year’s 24-2 juggernaut. The Pandas outscored opponents 99-9 on their way to a second state title in three years and third in 10 years.
Most on Notre Dame are year-round club players hoping to wind up in a college program. Arnzen is heading to Ohio University. She’s a big reason the Pandas have their sights set on advancing to the state final a fourth straight year.
Defending 10th Region champion Bishop Brossart returns 15 players, including seven seniors.
But a sense of opportunity prevails among contenders eager to take down the Pandas and Mustangs. Both defending champs are undergoing change, with new head coaches and new systems in place.
David Gronotte takes over at Notre Dame. Kevin Hess takes over at Bishop Brossart.
Nobody is feeling sorry for either coach.
“I would think he’s got a lot to work with over there,” Dixie coach Curt Critcher said of Gronotte. “Notre Dame has to be heavily favored in our region because a lot of girls play at a high level. But we have experienced talent and some new faces that we’re looking forward to helping us win.”
Returning regional runner-up Highlands, semifinalists Newport Central Catholic and Ryle, and regional qualifiers Beechwood, Boone County, St. Henry and Dixie are lined up to take their shots at Notre Dame. The hope is that one or two goes in the nets.
Dixie returns three of its top four scorers and both goalkeepers. Highlands has 15 seniors and juniors. Second-team all-state midfielder Loren Zimmerman keys the NewCath squad. Honorable mention all-state standout Lauren Duggins and versatile Hannah Poe lead seven returning starters at Ryle. Payton Black scored 29 goals and had 11 assists last season for Boone County. St. Henry has 11 seniors, including Kirsten Bartlett and Hannah Bohmer. Beechwood has two seniors and a growing program.
When it comes to scoring, they haven’t done much against Notre Dame.
The Pandas have outscored opponents 299-36 the past three years while posting a 73-9 record. They are giving up an average of less than one-half goal (0.43) per game in that span. Notre Dame has won 42 of its past 45 games against regional foes. The Pandas begin the season Monday at Beechwood riding a 12-game winning streak, with a 17-game unbeaten streak on the line.
“We hope they’re not safe. It’s why you play sports; the favorite doesn’t always win,” Ryle coach Dusty Margraves said. “But, they are the team to beat.
Public schools take shot at state title
There has been one public school program win the Ninth Region girls’ soccer tournament championship since Simon Kenton ended a run of five straight public school winners with a title in 2007. It was Dixie Heights in 2011.
Highlands has been the only public school to win the 10th Region girls’ soccer title since 1999. Highlands, in an independent school district, won a Ninth Region title in 2003. All other Ninth and 10th regional champions this century have come from a group including Bishop Brossart, Notre Dame, St. Henry and Holy Cross, all private.
“Being independent makes Highlands different from us,” said Boone County coach Mike Hughes. “Schools in the Boone County School District, you’re limited to where people live. Even in Kenton County, you have open enrollment, so there’s a chance some good players could come together at one school to make a team good enough to beat a private school like Notre Dame.”
There is another element, said Dixie Heights coach Curt Critcher. “It’s proximity,” he said. “Every time we play Notre Dame, it’s a turf war. We’re in a unique situation because we’re so close to Notre Dame. Some of their girls live in our school district. Same with Boone County with St. Henry being so close by.”
Boone County won the Ninth Region tournament in 2004. Ryle won back-to-back in 2005-06, so there’s recent precedent for a smattering of public school champions. Although Notre Dame seems to have a stranglehold on the Ninth Region after rejoining in 2012, and Bishop Brossart has won the first two 10th Region crowns after the Pandas switched out, Hughes said opportunity still exists for a public program with solid footing.
“I’ve got three full-time returning starters, but they combined for 67 goals,” Hughes said. “That and good defense is what you need to beat a team like Notre Dame. Nine times out of 10, Notre Dame beats you. But you only need to beat them once in the postseason. If you have big scorer, and Dixie won when they added Lauren Nemeroff, anything can happen in a close final.”
Ryle coach Dusty Margrave is similarly optimistic: “It’s a numbers thing. It’s not slim pickings when you’re looking for 15 girls out of 80, and that’s how many I had try out this year. Our goal is to get to the regional final, and be that public school that wins.”