By John Lachmann
UNION, Ky. – Dixie Heights came within 3:11 of having its season end earlier than most expected on Monday.
That is how much time remained in regulation when senior midfielder Ali Critcher buried a match-tying free kick from 30 yards out to force overtime and ultimately sudden death penalty kicks.
Senior Anna Crosthwaite finally put the Bluebirds away in the eighth round of PKs as the Colonels won, 2-1.
Dixie Heights entered the match as the overwhelming favorite, having posted a 14-5-1 record and facing a Bluebirds team that had won one match since the calendar flipped to September and gone 3-10-3 through districts.
“I was really disappointed with the way we played the entire first half,” Dixie Heights coach Curt Critcher said. “But having said that, knowing we could play a lot better and we were only down 1-0, I felt OK then, but obviously the longer that it went on the less confident that you feel.”
Highlands dominated the first half, forcing Colonels senior goalie Erin Snyder to turn four shots aside while Bluebirds senior goalkeeper Jesse Daley did not record a save.
Highlands took the lead with 18:14 left before halftime when sophomore Brooke Dougherty’s corner kick pinballed in traffic and found Bluebirds freshman Brooklynn Rivers, who fired a 15-yard shot just under the crossbar.
Highlands continued to dictate the pace early in the second half, and sophomore Taylor Vaughn nearly gave the Bluebirds a two-goal lead off a rip that Snyder bobbled briefly before pulling in.
Dixie Heights began generating scoring chances as the half continued, but Rivers got loose in front of the Colonels’ net and forced Snyder to deny a point-blank chance and a follow-up rebound shot from just feet away in the 64th minute.
Still trailing, 1-0, Dixie Heights was awarded a free kick with four minutes remaining. Sophomore Lauren Nemeroff tapped the ball to Critcher, who fired it past Daley to tie the score.
Both teams were cautious in the five-minute overtime sessions, and neither put a shot on net.
The teams matched each other in penalty kicks, with the Rivers opening up the first round by burying a left-footed shot low to her left and Dixie Heights senior defender Anna Ochs firing a shot into the bottom right corner.
Snyder made a save in the second round and the Colonels missed high, and Highlands senior Kati Walls and Dixie Heights senior Chrissy Wolking both converted on low shots to their left in round three.
The next six shooters all missed the net. In the seventh round, Snyder dove to deny a shot to the bottom right corner, and the Colonels missed on their fourth straight clinching shot.
Snyder made a diving save, grazing the ball enough to redirect it off the post in Highlands’ half of round eight. Finally, Crosthwaite found net with a low shot to her left.
Snyder finished with 11 saves, and she stopped three shots in the penalty kicks.
“Erin is one of the best keepers in Northern Kentucky, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Critcher said. “When she stays aggressive, that’s when she excels. She was aggressive at times coming out at people and obviously she stayed aggressive on the PKs.”
Snyder said the team has spent time in practice preparing for such a scenario.
“It was surreal, I guess that’s the only thing I can think of to describe it, it was a crazy experience,” Snyder said. “You see it in movies where everything slows down – it’s so true. You just focus on the ball and the shooter, everything else just fades out.”
Dixie Heights will play Notre Dame in a regional semifinal at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. The Pandas won the teams’ regular-season matchup, 2-1 in Crestview Hills on Oct. 1.
HALFTIME: Highlands, 1-0. GOALS: H—Rivers. DH—Critcher. RECORDS: Dixie Heights 15-5-1, Highlands 3-11-3.
NOTRE DAME 7, CONNER 0 – Sophomore Mandy Arnzen scored three times as the Pandas equaled their second-highest single-game goal total of the season.
Senior striker Ellie Eckerle added two goals for Notre Dame, which won its 12th straight match and is unbeaten in its last 13. The Pandas have allowed just four goals in that span, and they recorded their fourth straight shutout and 16th of the year.
Eckerle opened the scoring 2:10 into the first half when she was left open for a header off a corner kick by senior defender Alex Lonnemann.
After watching one of the best teams in Northern Kentucky nearly lose prior to their match, the Pandas came out determined not to put themselves in the same position.
“The girls watched (the Dixie Heights game) and anything can happen in the postseason, but I really think it gave it the postseason feel to watch a shootout,” Notre Dame coach Sara McSorley said. “It was big to set the tone early and get one in the back of the net.”
Arnzen ripped a shot after slipping through the defense with 13:51 remaining until halftime to make it 2-0, and Eckerle extended the lead to three when she tapped in a rebound after a shot by senior striker Katy Zembrodt was denied.