|Bluebirds Face Pandas in Region Semifinals|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior setter Audrey Graves (8) sets up to serve in the 9th Region Quarterfinals against Dixie Heights on Sunday.|
These two solid teams played each other three times during the regular season and had also met in the 9th Region Quarterfinals the previous two years. In the deciding fifth game, the Highlands Bluebirds edged the Dixie Heights Lady Colonels by the thinnest 15-13 margin Sunday to move on to the region semifinals back at Boone County.
The three-time 36th District champion Bluebirds moved to 29-7 on the season with the victory and the 34th District runner-up Lady Colonels finished 23-11. Highlands faces the Notre Dame Pandas (26-11) back at Boone County at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Highlands won the first two sets, 25-19 and 25-22. But Dixie Heights did not quit to no one's surprise taking the next two by 25-16 and 25-21 scores. After the fourth set, Highlands Head Coach Katelyn Sallee said she mentioned all the fans in the stands that came to support them.
"We had an incredible crowd. You need to listen to what they're saying," Sallee said. "You need to let it fill you up and you need to play like champions. You need to play like you just won the last set and not lost the last set and they came out like that. They came out looking fresh. It was really important. It's really hard to lose two sets and go into a fifth set playing that strong, playing for your life so to speak against an incredible team."
Highlands beat Dixie Heights in Fort Thomas, 3-0 on Sept. 5 by 25-20, 25-17, 25-17 scores. But the Lady Colonels won the next two in tournaments. The first meeting came in the Jefferson County Invitational Volleyball Tournament on Oct. 4 that Dixie won 2-1 (29-27, 21-25, 25-17). Dixie also beat Highlands, 2-1 (25-21, 17-25, 15-4) in the championship game of the Cake Classic.
Highlands senior setter Audrey Graves agreed the players and coaches would be there for each other in tough situations no matter what. Graves had 49 of the team's 50 assists to go with 17 digs.
Graves, senior outside hitter Casey Dunn and senior middle blocker Ava Hockney are three-year starters. The other two seniors in defensive specialists Brooke Biltz and Rylee Kirschenbaum also did their part to make sure the season did not end.
"Our really fast defense helped us play aggressive," Graves said. "In the third and fourth set, we were out of system a lot more, which slowed our offense down and didn't allow us to be as aggressive. But in the first, second and fifth set, we sped up our defense. We were everywhere on the court and that allowed me to speed up our offense. Our hitters were super aggressive and that's what won us that game."
Highlands had a .125 hitting percentage connecting for 50 kills on 184 attempts and 27 errors. Dunn provided her usual solid, all-around game with 14 kills and 17 digs. Hockney also had 14 kills.
"We were just studying how they played. We got together a lot and watched film on them," Dunn said. "We talked about our seams, our blocks and helping each other on the court is what got us through the game. Keeping the energy up on the small little points that maybe we don't earn but keep them perfect and clean is what keeps our intensity up the whole game."
The Bluebirds knew they had to use a variety of plays to beat the Lady Colonels. They ran some quicks to sophomore left-handed middle blocker CC Shick and to junior outside hitter Laura Winkler. Shick had 11 kills and Winkler had nine.
Biltz and Kirchenbaum had 16 and 14 digs respectively. Sophomore defensive specialist Madison Clore had five digs. But Clore also had three of the four Highlands aces, which has been key for the Bluebirds this season.
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Dixie Heights gave teams problems all season when the solid first pass came to junior setter Hannah Lukey. The leading hitters for Dixie Heights are seniors Irene Wogenstahl, Kamryn Webb and freshman Maia Long. Highlands brought in sophomores Lauren Buemi and Sophia Sarakatsannis to help against them at times in the match.
Highlands came out on fire after giving up the first point on a Wogenstahl kill in the fifth set scoring five straight with Clore serving. Hockney landed a kill and Clore had an ace during the run.
"Serving is a big part of (our success) because those are the points that we can control," Clore said. "You can't control much else. That's what we have to keep working on and use to gain our points. Serving always gives you momentum. You use it and keep going."
Dunn then landed a kill to give Highlands an 8-2 advantage. Another Hockney kill gave the Bluebirds an 11-6 lead forcing a Dixie Heights timeout.
The Lady Colonels came back to tie the game at 13. But Shick landed a kill before Hockney finished it off with a hard kill.
Highlands trailed by just one in the first set. The Bluebirds built a 14-10 lead behind some bad Dixie Heights passes and a Winkler kill.
The Bluebirds fell behind 13-6 and 14-7 in the second set. But Clore landed two aces to help the Bluebirds rally. Dunn and Winkler had a few kills to trim the margin to 20-19. Shick gave the Bluebirds the lead at 21-20 then 23-21. After a Wogenstahl kill, Hockney landed a kill and Dixie Heights hit the ball long to give Highlands the victory.
The Lady Colonels did tie the game at 19 before Highlands ran off six straight to win the game. Shick had two kills during the run as did Dunn. Winkler finished off the set with a kill.
Highlands played Notre Dame during the regular season losing 3-0 (25-12, 25-22, 25-17) on Oct. 8. Since playing together in the 9th Region since 2003, either St. Henry or Notre Dame has won it every year.
"They're not invincible. They're an incredible team," Sallee said of Notre Dame. "But we all have weaknesses. We have to pick on theirs and defend ours. We played them tough at their place so we have even more reason to win this one. Hopefully that will be enough."
This marked just the second region tournament win for the Bluebirds since 2010. Highlands also edged Dixie Heights, 3-2 in 2017 before losing to the Lady Colonels, 3-0 in the same round last year.
The Highlands win total matches that of the last Highlands team in 2004 to make the state tournament. The 2004 team's head coach was Kate Kruse and was led by players such as setter Natalie Forbes. Highlands won the old 34th District and 10th Region championships that year. In the state tournament, the Bluebirds beat Owensboro Apollo, 2-0 (25-19, 25-23) before losing 2-0 to Louisville Assumption in the state quarterfinals.