UNION, Ky. – Newport Catholic got a late first-half goal, then survived a flurry of late attacks from St. Henry to advance to Saturday's 9th Region title game with a 1-0 win Thursday night at Ryle's Clifford R. Borland Stadium.
The Thoroughbreds (14-5-1) advanced to their first regional final since 2005 with physical play, shadowing St. Henry standout Libby Leedom throughout the 80 minutes.
It was something they learned from their first meeting, an Oct. 1 mud-fest called at halftime due to rain with the Crusaders winning, 1-0.
"We learned that, obviously, you've got Leedom and (senior forward Jenna) Litzler that you've got to contain," said NCC coach Kevin Turnick. "We told Sam (Bunzel), 'you're going to stay on Libby. She's going to be your best friend for 80 minutes.'"
Bunzel, a junior midfielder, drew that duty again in the regional semifinal, helping to hold Leedom scoreless. The senior, who came in with 22 goals in as many games, had five shots on goal but was stymied by the constant pressure.
"Sam played a heck of a game. Anytime (Leedom) got a touch, Sam was there and did just a fantastic job slowing her down," added Turnick.
St. Henry was on the attack in the early going as NewCath keeper Erin Ackerson saved a Leedom shot just 30 seconds in. The Crusaders added another shot three minutes later before the 'Breds started to control the midfield.
As the half wound down, NewCath got on the scoreboard on a Loren Zimmerman header from in front of goal. Senior Nikki Buller collected an errant pass and drove down the right sideline before sending a cross from 15 yards out which Zimmerman sent into the top right corner of the net over St. Henry keeper Morgan Potts with 4:55 remaining.
According to Turnick, it was something the 'Breds have been working on.
"Loren probably had five or six looks the last five or six games, right in front of goal with headers, and just missed wide each time. So, she got that monkey off her back," he said.
Taking that cushion into the second half was small comfort though, he added.
"Actually, it scared me a little more," admitted Turnick. "I knew they were going to come harder in the second half and give us everything they had."
With renewed urgency, the Crusaders did just that with eight shots on goal. Despite some great chances, they couldn't dent the net, though. Their last, best hope disappeared when Litzler's breakaway shot from 15 yards in front of goal sailed high with 1:20 remaining.
Ackerman, a sophomore, finished with five saves to earn the her seventh shutout of the season and NewCath's third in a row.
The Thoroughbreds advance to Saturday's regional final against defending state champs Notre Dame (21-2-1). Game time is at 3 p.m. at Ryle.
The Pandas average three goals a game, with a tough defense that has allowed only nine goals all season (a state-leading 0.4 per game average).
Which, Turnick said, means NewCath's game plan will be much the same as their semifinal effort.
"They've got a lot of weapons, a lot of pace, just like St. Henry. We've been creative, changing formations the last couple of games and it's paid off. It's going to be the same game plan, just different names," he said.
As for the Crusaders, the loss meant the end of the prep careers of their five seniors, including Leedom, who has committed to the University of Dayton. She finished with the Northern Kentucky career goals record in tow.
"What Libby was able to accomplish was tremendous," said St. Henry coach Steve Lorenz. "I knew the kind of player I was getting when she was a freshman. People told me, and I had her on a club team. She had the luxury of playing her first two years with really talented teams, but then to lose that talent, we were really dependent on her the past two years."
"To continue to score goals the way she did was a testament to the work she put in," he added.
HALFTIME: 1-0. GOAL: NCC-Zimmerman. SHUTOUT: Ackerman (5 saves). RECORDS: Newport Catholic 14-5-1, St. Henry 16-6-2.
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