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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Cooper Again Ends Highlands Volleyball Season

Bluebirds Graduate Nine Seniors

Highlands senior Sophia Sarakatsannis (10) attempts to hit one past the block of Cooper's Holland Morris (13) while Sadie Smith (3) gets in position in the 9th Region Quarterfinals at Conner.

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The Highlands Bluebirds volleyball team (28-8 overall) had a big hurdle standing in its way in the 9th Region quarterfinals at Conner on Tuesday.

Of the three teams Highlands could draw, the 36th District champion Bluebirds once again found themselves on the opposite side of the net of the one they had a long 15-game losing streak against in the 33rd District runner-up Cooper Lady Jaguars (22-11). Highlands hoped for things to change in the third meeting this year. But it did not happen as Cooper won 3-0 (25-17, 25-14, 25-17) to advance to the region semifinals Wednesday.

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That marked the final game for nine Highlands seniors. They are four-year starter CC Shick, Sophia Sarakatsannis, Lauren Buemi, Avery Cavacini, Nicole Ossege, Honor Valentine, Madison Clore, Madison Optiz and Josie Steppe.

Sarakatsannis led the way digging up 16 balls and recording six kills. Valentine and Clore followed with 12 each as Highlands had 66 digs, 26 kills and assists, two solo blocks by Buemi and Shick and just four aces. Opitz had 13 assists, five digs and two aces.

Cooper makes teams have to try several hard swings at times not allowing the ball to hit the hardwood easily. Shick led Highlands with seven kills. Ossege had six kills and six digs and Buemi had five. The Bluebirds tried hitting line and opposite sides of the floor, but could not develop the offensive rhythm needed to win the game.

"I think we had a slow start and we had pockets where we picked things up," said Katelyn Sallee, Highlands Head Coach. "Defensively, they're an exhausting team to play because if you're feeling off offensively and you're playing their defense, it's difficult to score. They did a really great job and we just didn't play our best."

The Bluebirds even tried different things with both setters. Junior Kenzi Vennefron had 10 assists.

The loss does not take away what the program accomplished during the seniors' time in high school. Highlands finished 95-35 the last four years with four 36th District championships. Highlands has won five district tournament crowns in a row.

Steppe agreed that while the varsity volleyball playing days are done, the memories and friendships formed will last a lifetime. This is the most seniors Highlands has had in Sallee's eight seasons as head coach.

"If I hadn't played volleyball, I wouldn't have all these friends and I wouldn't change it for the world," Steppe said. "Highlands volleyball is just special. There is no other team like us. I love them like my family."

While the Bluebirds have won just once against the better teams in the 9th Region in Cooper, Ryle, St. Henry and Notre Dame over the years, they have reversed the trend against Newport Central Catholic having won nine of the last 10 meetings after having lost 24 of the last 25. The lone loss to the Thoroughbreds came during the regular season last year.

"I honestly can't say enough about these seniors," Sallee said. "I just cried like a baby saying goodbye to them. A lot of it had to do with that class because we've seen it through with them. They're really special, really talented and have a ton of heart. They're great teammates and really fun to coach. They're awesome."

The loss also marked the end of an eight-year tenure as head coach for Sallee. The new head coach will build around Vennefron and others who saw some varsity action such as juniors Carly Cramer, Bailey Houston, Emma Daly and eighth grader Hayden Gessner. This marked the deepest team Highlands had in years as 16 players dressed varsity.

Cooper also eliminated Highlands in the first round last year at Covington Holmes. The Lady Jaguars have ended the Highlands postseason four times in the region quarterfinals in the 10 seasons since the current alignment took form in 2012.

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