|Bluebirds Field Experienced Group|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Ava Hockney prepares to serve in a match at Beechwood last year. Hockney is one of four starters returning for the Bluebirds.|
The last two seasons have produced consecutive 25-11 marks with 36th District championships and a region quarterfinal win over Dixie Heights two years ago. The team hopes to build on that with perhaps the deepest team the Bluebirds have had in Sallee's six seasons as head coach.
"It's been like this the past few years," Sallee said. "With the leadership we have in the senior class that's been around and instrumental for so long, the dynamic is so positive and so inclusive. They want to succeed and they want to put the work in. It's just a fun group to coach."
Highlands graduated just two players from last year's team that lost to Dixie Heights in the 9th Region quarterfinals in outside hitter Margot Seidel and libero Olivia Gessner. Gessner took her talents to Indiana Tech, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program located in Fort Wayne (Indiana). Gessner had 322 digs last year and 69 aces with Seidel contributing 349 kills and 58 aces.
Highlands returns 10 players with varsity experience including four starters. Two have started the past two years in senior setter Audrey Graves and senior middle blocker Ava Hockney.
"They're definitely getting better," Sallee said. "There are a lot of different roles that we wanted to see return stronger. All of our players are growing physically getting stronger. Their skills are sharper. But I just feel a lot of maturity, court awareness, understanding the game, understanding the opponent, things like that, I'm really excited to see that continue to grow because we saw a lot of that last season. That can only continue to go up."
Graves makes things happen when the first pass comes to her clean setting up hitters such as Hockney. The 5-10 Hockney gives the Bluebirds a strong presence at the net. Graves had 1,031 assists last year and Hockney had 272 kills, 55 blocks including 51 solo and 51 aces last year.
The team is also excited to see outside hitter and defensive specialist Casey Dunn return to the court. Dunn consistently gives the Bluebirds solid all-around play. In a 3-2 win over eventual 10th Region champion and state semifinalist Campbell County in the third game of the season, Dunn left the game and did not return to the court the rest of the season. Dunn referenced the work the team did with the ASAP staff this year.
"I think we've done well in the off-season," Dunn said. "We've been getting together with some team workout stuff. Our strength and agility has just skyrocketed. We have all the potential to just grow throughout the season and adjust to changes that need to be made."
The other two seniors are defensive specialists Rylee Kirschenbaum and Brooke Biltz. The two had 185 and 132 digs respectively last year. Those two plus sophomore defensive specialist Madison Clore hope to fill in Gessner's role. Gessner led by example hustling after balls and Kirschenbaum said the returning players hope to keep that up this season.
"It definitely helps that we all have a lot of trust in each other," Kirschenbaum said. "So I think those balls that are in between (players), I think we're really good at knowing who's going to get what ball. The mentality that everything drops on the other team's side and nothing drops on your side is important. Our team does a great job at doing that. We definitely hustle very well."
Highlands has plenty of weapons offensively. Freshman lefty middle blocker/right side hitter CC Shick also returns as a starter. The 6-foot-0-inch Shick along with junior 5-10 middle blocker/right side hitter and setter Laura Winkler give Highlands size along with Hockney and 6-0 sophomore Lauren Buemi give the Bluebirds size.
Buemi is new to varsity this year along with sophomore setter and junior defensive specialist Maria Little. Sophomore outside hitters Sophia Sarakatsannis and Nicole Ossege also return giving the Bluebirds depth. Ossege also plays the right side.
The 9th Region has been dominated by Notre Dame and St. Henry over the years. To take the next step against strong teams like those two, Sallee said it's important to not get down when things don't work out against them.
"I think every school in the region wants to push past the wall that has been there," Sallee said. "This is an exciting place to be. If we can execute really well on multiple fronts and we're not relying on one person to produce every night at their A-plus level, I think we're going to be able to make some strides in the region. Offensively and defensively, I'm excited to where we've spread that talent."
Highlands opens the season Aug. 20 at home against Beechwood. Game time is 7 p.m.