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Monday, August 2, 2021

2021 Highlands Volleyball Preview: growth, progress now the norm

Bluebirds Have Nine Seniors This Year

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Sophia Sarakatsannis sets up to serve in a game last year. Sarakatsannis is one of eight seniors with varsity experience returning this year.

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It's yet another sign of how much the interest in volleyball has grown for the Highlands Bluebirds over the years.

Entering her eighth season as head coach, Katelyn Sallee and staff see the most number of seniors on the roster they've had during that time with nine. Eight of them have varsity experience.

2000 Memorial Parkway. 

The Bluebirds hope to use that to keep expanding on to what has been built over the last several seasons. Highlands has gone from around .500 to a four-time 36th District Tournament champion. Highlands has gone 145-91 since Sallee took the job in 2014 with five straight winning seasons.

That includes a 13-8 mark in a Coronavirus 2019 pandemic-shortened season last year. Highlands lost to Newport Central Catholic for the first time since 2017 during the regular season. But the Bluebirds came back to beat the Thoroughbreds, 3-2 (21-25, 25-8, 24-26, 25-19, 15-4) in the district tournament championship game at Dayton before losing to Cooper in the region quarterfinals. 

Highlands had posted three straight seasons of 25 or more wins between 2017 and 2019. The Bluebirds faced Dixie Heights in the region quarterfinals all three years beating the Colonels in 2017 and 2019 for their only two 9th Region Tournament wins since the realignment in 2012. Highlands last made state in 2004 winning the old 10th Region Tournament.

"Honestly, it gets more exciting every year when you have returners who have bought in and who get it. I can push the underclassmen," Sallee said. "But just the level of play alone as that increases, it pushes the underclassmen. It's the exponential growth factor that is fun to see. If people don't step up, they can't keep up. So it forces people to rise up. Our culture is loud. It's aggressive. It's inclusive. We love each other. But we expect a lot out of each other."

Senior middle blocker/right side hitter CC Shick returns for her fourth year on varsity after starting every season since her freshman year. Shick led Highlands with 208 kills including an astounding 25 in the district tournament title game in addition to 39 blocks including 20 solo. Senior middle blocker/right side hitter Lauren Buemi brings back two years of varsity experience finishing second on the team with 150 kills and 27 blocks including 18 solo.

Senior defensive specialists Madison Clore and Honor Valentine return after seeing time in all 21 matches last year. Clore led Highlands with 279 digs and added 29 aces. Valentine finished second with 37 aces and racked up 182 digs.

Two other senior outside/right side hitters in Nicole Ossege and Sophia Sarakatsannis have seen some action on varsity since their freshmen seasons. Ossege had 88 kills and 50 digs last year and Sarakatsannis had 186 digs and 44 kills.

The other two returning seniors with varsity experience are middle blocker Avery Cavacini and outside hitter/defensive specialist Josie Steppe. Cavacini had 54 kills last year.

"We're all pretty close and so that makes it really exciting and it makes us want to have a good final season,"
Shick said. "It's really nice having a couple of new girls as well. We're learning. We went to Morehead (State University) Camp earlier this summer."

Highlands graduated just two players off last year's team in Laura Winkler and Maria Little. But they split the setting duties accounting for nearly 90 percent of the team's assists. Little led Highlands with 342 assists and 51 aces. Winkler had 331 to go with 143 kills and 195 digs.

Senior Madison Opitz is the leading candidate to take over that important role. Opitz could also see action as a defensive specialist. Junior Kenzi Vennefron is also looking to see action at setter.

"It's an intimidating job to take when you haven't played varsity before and you haven't had to lead an offense," Sallee said. "We've had a lot of years where we've had setters returning for two seasons, three seasons, sometimes four. This whole preseason, they've been nothing but committed and tough taking a lot of coaching, taking a lot of feedback. I'm seeing it transition onto the court, which is really exciting. I think the girls really trust them to lead our offense and it's going to be really good."

The players credit Sallee for helping with the transition. Sallee earned All-Ohio Valley Conference honors as a setter at Morehead State.

"We have a very versatile group of girls," Sarakatsannis said. "We know how to adjust to stuff like that. We have people who play multiple positions and a lot of things we've been trying. We've done a ton of different clinics. That's about knowledge of the hitters. As long as we have smart hitters who know there are many different plays and different things you can do with the ball, it should be easier if it's harder to get a perfect set for the transition."

Highlands did work junior outside hitters Emma Daly and Bailey Houston onto the varsity level last year. Two middle blockers round out the roster in junior Carly Cramer and sophomore Rachel Ossege.

The Bluebirds ventured to Lexington for the Bluegrass State Games over the weekend. They could not do that last year.

"I can't express just playing volleyball again and being able to be kind of face-to-face with these girls and having to wear the mask, not having to have the protocols," Sallee said. "We have a pre-season again. We're having a lot of competition before the season begins. We kind of felt we had our legs swept up from under us last year. It's pretty awesome."

Notre Dame and St. Henry have held firm on the wall in the 9th Region Tournament. Notre Dame won its ninth state championship last year ending the 25-year run of state championships by Louisville private schools Sacred Heart, Mercy and Assumption. But Highlands has put itself in the tier below them in best position to end it one day with the likes of Ryle, Cooper and Dixie Heights.

Highlands has two scrimmages left before opening the season Aug. 18 at home against Conner. Game time is 6:30 p.m.

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