|Twitter Photo. Members of the Highlands Middle School teams pose at a recent Highlands volleyball game. The Little Birds program starts in the Third Grade.|
It can be attributed to the Little Birds volleyball program at Woodfill Elementary. It started when Matt and Mandi Gessner moved to Fort Thomas years ago with their children including senior libero Olivia Gessner.
They come from tradition-rich volleyball high schools. Mandi Gessner did not play volleyball at the all-girls Cincinnati Seton High before graduating in 1996. But the Saints have won six volleyball state championships.
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"When Olivia was growing up, she didn't have a place to play," Matt Gessner said. "There wasn't anything in Fort Thomas at the time so (Mandi) was really the one that pushed it. She felt like it was something that Fort Thomas needed."
The Gessners began running the program at Woodfill Elementary School in 2014 in the winter months. It started as third through the fifth grade. But it now includes a sixth grade team for girls that don't make the team at Highlands Middle School.
All-girl Louisville private school powers Mercy, Assumption and Sacred Heart have won every state championship since Notre Dame's last crown in 1994. They have girls starting out in the third grade. Matt Gessner said Ryle and Cooper have girls starting that young as well.
The Gessners approached former Highlands Head Coach Whitney Mulroney about the idea of the winter league before the 2013 season when Olivia Gessner entered the seventh grade. Dave Pratt, the father of former Highlands soccer great Kristen Pratt-Gerrein, has helped with the program when it has run the last five years.
"We wanted to get (Mulroney's) feedback on it and obviously, she was ecstatic about it," Mandi Gessner said. "We try to start off the season with two clinics run by the Highlands program. We do clinics at the beginning so we can just get them to know how to do the fundamentals - teach them the proper way to pass, serve and hit. It also gives volunteer coaches a chance to get some drills together if they've never coached the game before because that happens often. We need to find parents to coach. That gives them a chance to learn fundamentals."
They do clinics and some scrimmages for third graders. Fourth through sixth grade teams have games. Former Highlands players such as Katy Ball, a 2017 alum, recently came back and coached the fourth and sixth grade teams. Olivia Gessner coached some of her current teammates in the league years ago.
The current group of juniors in setter Audrey Graves, hitters Casey Dunn, Ava Hockney and defensive specialists Brooke Biltz and Rylee Kirschenbaum have been playing together for a while. Dunn, Hockney and Graves played on the Highlands Middle School's Junior Varsity team in the sixth grade during the 2013-14 school year while Biltz and Kirschenbaum played on the first sixth grade team there. Biltz, Dunn, Hockney and Graves also played on the first fifth grade team at Moyer Elementary during the 2012-13 school year. The Highlands Middle School JV team consists of sixth and seventh graders. Their families got together, voiced the desire for those teams and made that happen.
That first sixth grade team played during Mulroney's last season in 2013. Current Head Coach Katelyn Sallee took over as head coach in 2014.
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Highlands won 25 games in 2017 with Graves, Dunn and Hockney all starting. That team won its first 36th District championship since 2012 and won its first region game against Dixie Heights since 2010. Graves said she realized she loved the sport in middle school.
"That's a huge part of the program," Graves said. "Just playing with those girls for so long has really just developed our entire way we play and our mood on the court. Girls have been playing more even in elementary school so they learn fundamentals there. Then once they come to the middle school, they already have them so it's advancing their game even more. The coaches have done a great job in that."
Several freshmen have seen varsity action this year. Middle blocker CC Shick and outside hitter Nicole Ossege made the initial varsity roster in the pre-season. Outside Hitter/Middle Blocker Sophia Sarakatsannis and setter/defensive specialist Madison Clore saw action as the result of injuries.
"I started out with the Little Birds and I had never played volleyball before," Sarakatsannis said. "I got into the world of volleyball and I loved it. With the community and all your friends into the game, it got you to love the sport. That led me to try out for high school and I've really enjoyed it."
With more of an interest in volleyball, Mandi Gessner pointed out the high school teams have to cut some players like other sports do. But the recent records show how much the competition has helped the team move up the 9th Region ranks.
The dates have been set for the league this winter. They are Jan. 19 through March 23, 2019.