By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The number 13 may be unlucky.
But the Highlands Ladybirds volleyball turned it into a lucky number on Wednesday at Newport High. The Ladybirds (13-22 overall) snapped a 15-match losing streak to the arch-rival Newport Central Catholic Lady Breds (10-22) with a 3-0 (25-22, 26-24, 25-20) win to capture the District 36 championship for the first time since 2004. Highlands had not beaten NewCath since 2005.
“For a change, we’re turning it around. We’re actually building this program up,” said Whitney Mulroney, Highlands head coach. “It’s been a long time that the girls have been at the caliber to where they want to work hard and actually win big games. It’s good to see them come back, not lose faith and put the ball down and put it away.”
NewCath had captured seven straight district championships and six regional crowns entering the year. The Lady Breds ended the Ladybird seasons in 2008 and last year during that run in the days of blind draws.
“Highlands deserved (the title),” said Vicki Fleissner, NewCath head coach. “(The Ladybirds) hustled and played tremendous defense. We didn’t show up to play (Wednesday). We had a lot of hitting errors. That’s the way our season has been. We chose the wrong night to have a down night.”
Highlands had to adjust the lineup playing without junior Mallory Seidel, out with sickness. But the Ladybirds adjusted well in the 5-1 attack and dominated the net unlike the regular season meeting. Senior Sarah Schweitzer led Highlands with eight kills and sophomore Jessica Ginter had four kills and five blocks.
Ginter and her teammates made things tough for NewCath power hitter Nikki Kiernan and teammates at the net. Kiernan still had 13 kills. But the Highlands blocking made the NewCath hitters hit the ball high and wide.
“I’ve played middle (hitter) before,” Ginter said. “It was a new experience, but I trust my players. I knew we could pull it off for sure. It feels so great.”
Highlands senior defensive specialist Katie Van Curen and sophomore setter Kaitlin Hall knew they had to equal their counterparts on the other side of the net in NewCath defensive specialist Maria Froendhoff and setter Alyssa Maier. Van Curen dug up 18 balls and had seven aces and Hall had 20 assists. Froendhoff had 18 digs and five aces and Maier recorded 17 assists.
Highlands has five seniors. They were in the fifth grade the last time the Ladybirds beat the Lady Breds. Brooke Hamilton also had some kills playing as a right side hitter in addition to her duties on defense and setting.
“We had the motivation to come out and do this,” Hamilton said. “Hard work and hustle got us the win. We focused on being smart with where we placed the ball. We attacked their weaknesses like they did ours last game.”
Highlands won the first game of the regular season, but NewCath came back and won the next three. The Ladybirds did not let that happen this match.
“We eliminated our errors,” Mulroney said. “Last night (Tuesday against Bellevue), we missed 14 serves. (On Wednesday), I think maybe we missed a couple. That’s a huge difference. If we eliminate our errors, that makes the other team make mistakes.”
Highlands scored three straight points in the first game to go up 19-16. The Ladybirds led 23-22 before Sydney Lindeman landed a kill and Van Curen landed an ace via a bad NewCath pass.
The second game stayed close. NewCath scored four in a row to go up 18-13 before Highlands took a timeout. The Ladybirds responded with an 8-0 run starting with a Ginter kill and Van Curen ace.
NewCath fought back to tie the game at 22 on a Kiernan ace. The Ladybirds had a chance for game point after a Sarah Schweitzer kill. But NewCath’s Keyiara Lankheit slammed down a Highlands overdig at the net to tie the game at 24.
Highlands came through with the win. It started with a NewCath error and ended with a Ginter kill.
NewCath came out and scored the first five points of the third game. But 9 afer Highlands fought back and took the lead for good at 10-9 after a Lindeman kill. The Ladybirds led 21-13 at one point before winning the game on a long NewCath serve.
Ginter, Sarah Schweitzer and Van Curen made the all-tournament team for Highlands. Froendhoff and Amanda Ruwe made the squad for NewCath.
Highlands stayed away from potential first-round matchups with Ryle, All “A” State Champion St. Henry or Notre Dame in the Ninth Region Tournament. In other action around the region Wednesday, Ryle beat Cooper, 3-1 (21-25, 25-10, 25-9, 25-15) to win the 33rd District and St. Henry bested Villa Madonna, 3-0 (25-13, 25-9, 25-7) to take the 34th title. Notre Dame plays for the 35th District title on Thursday.
The tournament takes place at St. Henry next week.