Playing a man down and its lead cut to one goal, the Paul Laurence Dunbar boys' soccer team needed a big play to put Highlands away Saturday.
Bulldogs senior Nathan Jones was there to provide it.
Jones stole the ball from the Bluebirds' goalkeeper to set up teammate Nelson Ng's late tally and lift Dunbar to a 3-1 victory in the state tournament quarterfinals at Henry Clay.
For most of the second half, it looked like the Bulldogs (24-1-2) would coast to a 2-0 victory. With about nine minutes left in the game, Dunbar junior midfielder Tyler Joy-Brandon was sent off with a straight red card.
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Highlands (17-8-1) answered 30 seconds later with its first goal of the day, a tally by sophomore Noah Sellers to pull the Bluebirds within 2-1 with 8:34 to play.
That's when Jones made his move.
The Dunbar player pressured Bluebirds goalkeeper Nathan Tippenhauer, who had control of the ball well away from his goal at the edge of the box. Jones stole an attempted pass and centered the ball to Ng, who rifled a shot past Tippenhauer and another Highlands defender to ice the victory.
"I was a little angry about the red card," Jones said. "And I was pretty determined that I was going to get that ball. ... I saw Nelson and I just passed to him. And he put it in the back of the net."
Tippenhauer made two point-blank saves a couple of minutes later, but Highlands never threatened in the final moments of the match.
Dunbar Coach Todd Bretz was proud of the way his squad kept its composure after the Bluebirds goal.
"They capitalized very well and took advantage of it," Bretz said. "And we were able to take a punch and punch back.
"Nathan — he's a warrior. He just works so hard and makes so many things happen. If you let down one minute, he's going to take advantage of it. His tenacity is just remarkable. He's a great player."
Jones got the Bulldogs on the board first, taking a perfect cross from teammate Luke Norris to give Dunbar a 1-0 advantage less than three minutes into the match.
"Going up a goal anytime is nice, but if you can get a goal early it kind of gives you a little bit of time to be flexible," Bretz said. "And if you do make a mistake, you're not going to get burnt so bad later."
In the final minutes of the first half, Bulldogs senior Jean-Samuel Poirier gained possession of the ball inside the Bluebirds zone, touched it once and rocketed a shot past Highlands goalkeeper Nick Breslin from about 15 yards out to give Dunbar a 2-0 lead.
That remained the score for the first 30 minutes of the second half until Joy-Brandon's red card led to the late action. According to KHSAA rules, Joy-Brandon will miss the next two games as a result of the ejection. That means he won't play again this season.
Dunbar hosts Henderson County in the state semifinals Wednesday. If the Bulldogs win that one, they'll play for a state championship on their home field Saturday.
Paul Dunbar 3, Highlands 1
Goals—D: Nathan Jones, Jean-Samuel Poirier, Nelson Ng; H: Noah Sellers.
Goalkeepers—D: Josiah Farley; H: Nick Breslin, Nathan Tippenhauer.
Records—Dunbar 24-1-2, Highlands 17-8-1.
State semifinals: Henderson Co. at Paul Dunbar
When: 6 p.m.
Scores and schedule: Page D7