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Monday, August 31, 2020

2020 Highlands Volleyball Preview

Bluebirds Not Letting Coronavirus 2019 Derail Uptick of Program

Highlands lists two seniors on the roster this year. One is setter/middle blocker/right side hitter Laura Winkler. The Bluebirds finished 29-8 last year, won a third straight 36th District crown before losing in the region semifinals to Notre Dame.

By G. Michael Graham

The Highlands Bluebirds volleyball team players and coaches are not taking this opportunity to answer some question marks lightly.

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"We have all definitely been very excited to get back into the gym to add a little bit of normalcy to our lives," said CC Shick, Highlands junior middle blocker/right side hitter. "But we have also been taking many precautions like wearing marks when we are not playing, sanitizing eveything and keeping our distance."

Highlands Head Coach Katelyn Sallee and staff normally start the season with 10 players on varsity then move player up from the junior varsity and freshman teams as the season progresses. The 10 players came into Friday's varsity-only practice and took temperature checks. They are not using locker rooms at this time.

The team knew it would not be able to figure some things out before the first game. The annual scrimmages including the Bluegrass Games did not take place this year because of Coronavirus 2019.
"I just told them the other day this is the shortest preseason I've ever had," Sallee said. "We haven't had time to prepare lineups. We haven't had time to work on skills. All that stuff is really fast. But I told them I fee like our starting point is higher this year because of the foundation that was set last year and the years before that. Every year, we want to start from a higher place. The volleyball IQ is a little bit higher. Even though we haven't had a great preseason in terms of length, I feel like where their minds are, the culture of our program and just the work we've put in is paying off right now in kind of the chaos that COVID has brought."

Shick and the three other players that saw significant roles in helping the Bluebirds to their best season since Sallee took over the program in 2014 return. Highlands finished 29-8 last year and won its third consecutive 36th District championship.

The Bluebirds then defeated Dixie Heights in a thrilling 3-2 win (25-19, 25-22, 16-25, 21-25, 15-13) in the 9th Region quarterfinals for just the team's second region win since the realignment in 2012. Highlands and Dixie Heights have met in the last three region quarterfinal rounds with Highlands winning last year and in 2017. Highlands then lost 3-0 (25-15, 25-17, 25-8) in the region semifinals at Boone County to eventual region champion Notre Dame.

That marked the end of the careers of six Highlands seniors that helped the Bluebirds to a 79-30 record in the previous three seasons including three three-year starters in setter Audrey Graves, middle blocker Ava Hockney and outside hitter/defensive specialist Casey Dunn. Defensive specialists Brooke Biltz, Rylee Kirschenbaum and manager Navaeh Votel also graduated. Votel stayed on in that role last year after playing on the JV in 2018. Dunn took her talents to Hanover College (Indiana) of the NCAA Division III's Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Highlands has gone from a team battling near .500 to one that stepped into the group in the 9th Region along with the likes of Cooper, Ryle and Dixie Heights that has threatened to break the region wall occupied by Notre Dame and St. Henry. One of them has won the region for a long time.

The Bluebirds will need others to step forward to stay in that group if not take another step toward breaking through the wall. Senior Laura Winkler at middle blocker, right side hitter and setter saw significant playing time last year and is a candidate to take over the setter spot. Juniors Lauren Buemi at middle blocker and right side hitter and Madison Clore as a defensive specialist return with a wealth of varsity experience.

"We definitely have a lot of shoes to fill and we're definitely looking for new leadership to take over the roles that they left," Winkler said. "I think so far, we've been doing a really good job. We just have to keep working to keep up our leadership and energy."

Three others saw limited action on varsity last year. They are senior setter/defensive specialist Maria Little and two junior outside hitter/right side hitters in Sophia Sarakatsannis and Nicole Ossege.

Ossege started the 2018 season on varsity and Sarakatsannis moved up as a result of injuries. Winkler and Little are battling to take over the huge setter role.

"I've been encouraged with what I've seen," Sallee said. "We have a unique situation with Audrey leaving and Laura and Maria having tons of setting experience. Laura has played varsity for several seasons so we've had a lot of maturity in that position. We're not starting with a freshman or eighth grader, although sometimes, that's nice to carry them through the whole time. But it also kind of nice to start with seniors leading our team and having some maturity there."

Highlands has three juniors new to varsity this year. Avery Cavacini is looking to fill a role at middle blocker and Honor Valentine hopes to contribute as a defensive specialist. Josie Steppe hopes to step in at outside hitter and defensive specialist.

"I've just been so encouraged in attitude and the level of play. Our newcomers just really from last year to this year have excelled," Sallee said. "Those are players I really haven't had a chance to work with. The fact they're showing some strength is exciting to me. We have options on the outside and in the middle. We can be creative and see what fits right."

Highlands plays just 24 games this season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The first game is September 8 at Conner. Game time is 6:30 p.m.

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