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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Highlands Volleyball Continues to Raise Bar

Bluebirds Own Consecutive 25-Win Seasons

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands volleyball team celebrated its second straight 36th District volleyball championship with a 3-0 win at Newport Central Catholic on Wednesday.
Based on the way this season has gone, anything less than the Highlands Bluebirds volleyball team recording a sound victory in the 36th District championship game Wednesday would have been a surprise.

That did not turn out to be an issue as Highlands celebrated its second consecutive district crown with a 3-0 (25-15, 25-16, 25-12) victory over the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (13-15 overall) on the hill. With the second victory over the hosts on their home court, Highlands at 25-10 also hit 25 victories on the year for the second straight season.

Highlands hopes not only those two accomplishments, but others not only become the norm, but the expectation year in and year out. The Bluebirds are 103-74 since Highlands Head Coach Katelyn Sallee took over the program in 2014. After consecutive 17-18 seasons, Highlands broke through with a winning 19-17 record in 2016.

"I think every year we've seen that trust increase more and more. You can have leadership in a team and a coaching staff. If the follower-ship isn't there, it doesn't work," Sallee said. "I've been really encouraged to see this team rally around us and rally around each other and just move in one direction instead of move in different directions and really getting in line behind the goals we've set for us and pushing toward that as opposed to individual goals or anything else that could divide or that could limit our success. I think it's only going to become more and more."

Sallee can't say enough about the parent support. Matt and Mandi Gessner started the Little Birds program at Woodfill Elementary years ago and the fruits of the labor have paid off. Their daughter is senior libero Olivia Gessner.

"I feel like people are having my back and encouraging me. I try to share at the beginning of each year and throughout the year, 'Hey, I have blind spots like everybody so please help me.' We are in this together," Sallee said. "When we're heading into a tournament that we're hosting or we're heading out of town or we have Senior Night coming up. I want people to share me and talk to me about what they see heading around the corner and things that could help us as a program to build and honor the girls for the work they've put in. I think it's really important to have those lines of communication open that parents know your serious that you actually do want feedback. I actually do want feedback because I know it'll make me better. There are a lot of parents who really buy into that and realize that a healthy communication is going to help make the team better. That's been fun helping develop over the years too."

Sallee has three assistants in Colleen Dunn, Molly Wehage-Maxwell and Jessica Ginter. Maxwell was also an assistant when Highlands won the district championship in 2012.

The Bluebirds own four straight wins over the Thoroughbreds. Prior to that, that win in the 2012 district championship marked the lone win for Highlands over NewCath in 25 meetings since a 2-1 (25-23, 21-25, 25-21) Bluebird win in Fort Thomas on Sept. 20, 2005.

"I definitely think our program is growing overall at the freshman, JV and varsity level," Maxwell said. "We just keep building. We have a really consistent coaching staff and I really think that's why it's led to the back-to-back district (championship) wins. Katelyn has a really good knowledge as far as college play. Colleen and I have been here for a while too so we just mesh. If one person knows what to say or doesn't know then someone else fills in so we really connect. We're usually all on the same page and really we're just there to support each other so it's great."

Ginter, a 2015 Highlands graduate, came back to coach the freshman team this year after playing a couple seasons at Eastern Kentucky University. Ginter was a senior in the first Highlands team Sallee coached in 2014.

"It feels great just to be back in this atmosphere," Ginter said. "These girls are awesome. All the coaches are great. The girls make it so fun. I'm so proud of them and so happy for them. Their win just watching them light up brings back all those happy memories and I'm glad that they get to experience that too."

Olivia Gessner again did her part leading Highlands with 13 digs and an ace. The Bluebirds had 36 kills and assists, 35 digs, five aces and two blocks.

Junior setter and all-tournament team member Audrey Graves had all 36 assists. Graves recently passed 2,000 assists for her career.

Highlands once again had balance attacking from all sides of the court. Senior Margot Seidel once again put up another solid all-around game with a team-high 13 kills, three aces and seven digs. Seidel earned the tournament's Most Valuable Player honor.

Several other Highlands hitters had nice nights. The Bluebirds had the 36 kills on 72 attempts and 12 errors for a .333 hitting percentage. To calculate hitting percentage, one takes the number of kills minus the number of errors and divides that total by attempts. Freshman CC Shick recorded eight kills with junior Ava Hockney and sophomore Laura Winkler making six each.

"When I do something really well, it really boosts my confidence up and I play even better," Winkler said. "We've gotten a lot better. If we can control the first ball, then Audrey can set up someone and we can kill it."

Highlands has tried to improve its blocking this year. Hockney recorded one solo block and combined with freshman Nicole Ossege on another.

"As a middle, I really try to focus on the opponent's dominant hitter because eventually they're going to be the one who has the most powerful swings," Hockney said. "We really want to protect our defense so we typically drift toward that player to block them better. With the underclassmen playing their first district (tournament) games on varsity, we really had to let them know that we still have to play our hardest even though we beat NCC in the regular season. It's not going to be a blow-over."

Sallee said the Highlands coaching staff pulled the upperclassmen aside and talked to them about leadership. Junior Casey Dunn has still been a huge part of the team's success even though she has not been able to play since the win over Campbell County.

"It's just really great to see how far we've come," Casey Dunn said. "It's so much fun beating teams we haven't beaten in the past and overcoming things that usually we wouldn't have been able to, but it's a lot of fun being on this team - the environment and everything. We're all so close that when one person is down, we pick them up and it really gets us through tough situations on the court and off the court."

Several underclassmen have seen more varsity time that anticipated with the injuries. That includes freshmen Madison Clore and Sophia Sarakatsannis.

"They support us and it's not a big deal if you make a mistake," Clore said of the upperclassmen. "Everything is fine and they'll bring you up. We want to work as hard as possible to help them win. Everyone has been great from day one. There are no problems."

Highlands plays in the 9th Region Tournament next week at Dayton. Two possible region quarterfinal opponents are Dixie Heights and Covington Holy Cross. Ryle and Cooper meet for the 33rd District title at 6 p.m. Thursday at Conner.

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