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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Katelyn Sallee Stepping Down as Highlands Head Volleyball Coach

Bluebirds Won 25 or More Games Four of Past Five Seasons

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands head volleyball coach Katelyn Sallee shouts out instructions in the region quarterfinal game against Cooper on Tuesday. Sallee is stepping down after leading Highlands to a record of 173-99 in eight seasons guiding the Bluebirds including five straight 36th District Tournament championships.

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Katelyn Sallee sat in a silent Russell Bridges Gymasium on Oct. 20.

The Highlands Bluebirds volleyball team had just won a fifth consecutive 36th District Tournament championship with a convincing 3-0 win over Newport Central Catholic. The fans, players and others had been gone for a while.

Sallee reflected on things knowing her eighth season would be her final season as head coach of the Bluebirds. That marked the final game of the season on the home floor. She's planning on focusing more on ministry and time with her husband Nate and their three kids in son Sonny (4), daughter Evy (5) and son Truett (8).

"It felt a bit surreal,"
Sallee said of the moment on Facebook. "I told the girls, especially my nine seniors, that they should take in all the sights, sounds, smells and energy they have experienced and enjoyed on this gym floor for the last four years of their life. Instead of being swept up prematurely in the sadness of losing it, they could choose to sit in the goodness of it. I did the same several times and honestly, every game of this year. I've just soaked in all the goodness and joy this game and these people have brought to my life. I'm thankful."

Her family consistently attended Highlands games. That included her parents Jeff and Melody Barbour. Sallee played volleyball at Simon Kenton graduating from there in 2005 before going on and becoming an All-Ohio Valley Conference setter at Morehead State University.

"I've appreciated the time to do it, to have to figure it out. But there is a lot," Sallee said. "Even after the game, you go to the gym for six hours. Then you come home and you still have stuff to do and kids to tuck in. It's hard. But it's good. While my family lost me some of the time, they gained a lot with the girls. Just inviting the family into the gym and having the girls know my family, know my husband, it's really been a family thing. My daughter is falling in love with the game. These girls are her hero so I've had the opportunity to put my kids around some pretty special stuff."

Sallee took over the program in the spring of 2014. The Bluebirds finished 173-99 in her eight seasons as head coach winning five consecutive 36th District Tournament championships. Highlands also defeated Dixie Heights in the 2017 and 2019 9th Region quarterfinals for their only two region tournament wins since 2010. Sallee communicated with the team via video and teleconference in the hospital while on the verge of giving berth to Sonny in the hospital in that first region quarterfinal win.

"She's made some very, very special bonds," said Wes Caldwell, Highlands Director of Athletics. "In any sport, when you make those special bonds with kids, they believe in themselves and believe in you. Kids go out, play harder and good results come from that."

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The Bluebirds enjoyed success in the 2000s in the old 37th District and 10th Region. They won the 10th region in 2004 before losing to state power Louisville Assumption in the state quarterfinals and drove back to the region championship game in 2010.

But the Bluebirds fell on some hard times after that falling to 6-25 in 2011 before recording consecutive 13-23 records in 2012 and 2013 winning the 36th District crown in 2012. The current region alignment started in 2012.

Highlands finished exactly 53-53 in Sallee's first three seasons. The 2016 team finished 19-17 recording the first winning season since 2010. That team had Newport Central Catholic down 2-0 in the first two games of the district tournament championship game that year before losing 3-2. That team had five seniors including outside hitter/setter Lauren Epperson. Epperson is still attending the University of Louisville.

"She was so good at making sure that everyone was just having fun and that their heart was really in it," Epperson said of Sallee. "We worked a lot on fundamentals just changing our mindset. You could tell that she cared about every single person on the team. It just made everybody want to play, do well and work together. Instilling that into the program made it a much better program."

The big breakthrough happened in 2017. Highlands defeated Newport Central Catholic in the September Slam for just the second win in the previous 26 meetings. That started a run of nine wins in the next 10 meetings for the Bluebirds against their big district arch-rival. That team included seniors Gracie Schweitzer and Maddie McCoy and captured the Cake Classic that year. 

But the talented sophomore class made a huge splash that year helping Highlands to a 25-11 season losing to Notre Dame in the region semifinals. Setter Audrey Graves and hitters Ava Hockney and Casey Dunn started that year after being the first class to come up through the Little Birds volleyball program that Matt and Mandy Gessner started.

Highlands again finished 25-11 in 2018. But in 2019, the Bluebirds hit another milestone when they won 29 games and lost just eight hitting that win total for the first time since going 29-10 in the run to state in 2004. The Bluebirds defeated Dixie Heights, 3-2 in the quarterfinals before putting up a fight against Notre Dame in the 9th Region semifinals. That team had six seniors including defensive specialist Rylee Kirschenbaum

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Kirschenbaum is attending the University of Kentucky. She is a Pre-Physician Assistant/Sports Medicine major and a student athletic trainer. She said volleyball helped has helped her manage her job and classes.

"She definitely grew my love for the sport even more," Kirschenbaum said of Sallee. "Being an athlete teaches you more things. She not only grew me as a player on the court, but also outside the court making sure I worked hard in the classroom and in my every day life in my studies. She definitely pushed me there and helped me in choosing a very challenging major."

The Bluebirds only defeated Cooper, Ryle, Notre Dame and St. Henry one time during those eight years. But the gaps were not as big as the years progressed. That win over Ryle came in 2019.

Highlands finished 13-8 in a Coronavirus 2019 pandemic-shortened season. But the Bluebirds had their deepest team this year with nine seniors including four-year left-handed starter CC Shick. The Bluebirds dressed 16 players this year. They finished 28-8 losing 3-0 to Cooper in the 9th Region Quarterfinals. They also won the Cake Classic this year.

"I think that our coach (Sallee) is a very special person," said Honor Valentine, Highlands senior defensive specialist. "She's the first coach that I've ever had that has taught me to care about volleyball in a way that's not just about volleyball and I think that's really special. She cares about all of us and she wants us to succeed in life and likes volleyball to have a way to do that."

Sallee always found ways to prepare for future seasons. She used two setters at times this year in senior Madison Optiz and junior Kenzie Vennefron. The new head coach will build around players such as Vennefron, juniors Bailey Houston, Carly Cramer, Emma Daly and eighth grader Hayden Gessner.

"We have the potential (to do well) next year," Vennefron said. "I'm very confident in our players coming up. Getting that exposure to the varsity level is really going to impact how we play next year."

Caldwell said the Highlands administration will be looking for similar traits to Sallee in the head coaching search. Molly Wehage-Maxwell has been an assistant for all eight seasons and served as an assistant under the previous head coach in Whitney Edwards-Mulroney

Assistant coach Jessica Ginter has been on staff for the last couple years after graduating from Highlands in 2015 playing on the first Highlands team Sallee coached. Ginter played collegiately at Eastern Kentucky University for one year.

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