Henry Clay, a mix of young and old players, sweeps Bryan Station in volleyball

mfields@herald-leader.comSeptember 24, 2013 

Henry Clay is a three-time defending region champion in volleyball, but Coach Dale Grupe said the possibility of winning four in a row isn't on the radar of his "brand new" Blue Devils right now.

"We aren't even mentioning anything about that because we have so many young players." Grupe said. "They don't know anything about a four-peat. They just want to have fun and do the best they can."

That's not to say Henry Clay can't contend for another trip to the state tournament. The Devils are rated tops in the region, with Paul Laurence Dunbar and Tates Creek close on their heels.

Dunbar beat Henry Clay in a five-set thriller a couple weeks ago. Tates Creek hosts them on Thursday.

"It'll be tough for any of the three of us because the competition is so even," Grupe said. "But we've got as good a shot as anybody."

Henry Clay improved its record to 18-5 with a 25-8, 25-8, 25-8 sweep of Bryan Station Tuesday night. The Devils showed that having a few veterans teaming with a strong group of freshmen can work well.

"All it is is bonding," senior outside hitter Elle Barnett said. "We come together, we circle up in the huddle, our arms wrapped around each other, and that's what's made us closer with the freshmen and as a team."

Barnett, junior middle blocker Ca'Layci Coffey and junior setter Lynsey Short have the most experience.

Barnett and Coffey also provide leadership, each in her own way.

"Elle has a very easygoing attitude that reflects how our team doesn't get down on itself," Grupe said. "We get comments when we're out of state about how our girls look like they're having fun even when they're losing, and Elle is a big part of that."

Coffey, who leads the team in kills and blocks, is the firebrand. "She's our emotional leader," Grupe said. "She's the one out there yelling, getting excited, and pumping us up. She's definitely inspirational."

Coffey embraces that role.

"I like to keep my teammates smiling and everybody happy," she said. "If I can keep their spirits up, everybody plays better and stays calm in a storm."

Short was a marvel at distributing the ball last season. The Devils had four players with more than 200 kills. Two players at the fifth position combined for more than 200.

"That shows what kind of setter Lynsey is," Grupe said. "I love it that she throws the ball around and gets everybody involved. And she continues to grow as a setter."

Junior libero Haley Longworth sparks the defense. Junior outside hitter Olivia Dixon, who saw clutch time last season, is a steadying influence, along with seniors Sydney Short and Brittany Ragland who have stepped up as role players.

Junior Avery Brown, another veteran, suffered a season-ending knee injury the first week of practice. That's why the rapid development of the freshmen has been so valuable. Hallie Shelton, who had more than 200 kills as an eighth-grader, Jessica Sunnenberg, Emma Yarber and Darby Music are getting major minutes and making a positive impact as ninth-graders.

Grupe has again challenged his Devils with a difficult schedule. They've played nine out-of-state opponents, including national power Wheaton St. Francis out of St. Louis. They've gone 6-3 in those matches.

"The girls relish the competition," Grupe said, "and it'll definitely make us stronger down the stretch."

Barnett agreed.

"Even though we might lose some, playing those teams makes us feel more confident in each other, and shows us we can push ourselves to work harder and become a great team."

Maybe even a team that can four-peat as region champ.

Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337. Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes. Blog: fieldsnotes.bloginky.com.

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