The Paul Dunbar volleyball team's reward for winning a regional and advancing to state was to be a surprise ride to Louisville Thursday in a pink Hummer limousine.
The idea for the limo didn't come to pass, so parents drove their daughters to Louisville. That's where the Lady Bulldogs begin their quest to be the fourth consecutive Lexington school to reach the semifinals. They will meet Belfry at 2 p.m. Friday in the first round at Bellarmine's Knights Hall.
Quarterfinals are Saturday morning and the semifinals that afternoon. The title match is 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Dunbar (27-14) enters the state tournament with a 16-4 record over the last half of the season. That includes a straight-set victory over Henry Clay in the 11th Region final last week.
The Bulldogs will be trying to follow Tates Creek (2005), Lafayette (2006) and Henry Clay (2007) into the semifinals while making their first trip to state since 2001.
"It's our year to have a chance to be in the final four," said Maddie Hatcher, a sophomore outside hitter. "I think we've earned it. The biggest key is don't underestimate the first team you play."
Hatcher was playing for Henry Clay last year. "We underestimated South Laurel and almost lost in the first round," she said. The Lady Devils lost in the semis to Notre Dame, 2-0.
Hatcher, whose family moved into the Dunbar district, credited improved communication for the Bulldogs' success.
"We weren't talking on the court enough," Hatcher said. "Girls were running into each other or not going for balls because the other girl would get it. (Against Henry Clay) every single person called the balls they wanted to get."
Senior outside hitter and defensive specialist Danica Fick said Dunbar had been good physically but unable to hold a lead.
"When we'd get ahead, we'd have a breakdown and not put the other team away," she said. "We've matured."
Fick cited the last two matches against Henry Clay. The Bulldogs were tied 1-1 in the district finals then lost. They defeated Henry Clay in the region 25-17, 25-17.
"We got ahead and finished," Fick said. "We didn't slack off. It was a big deal."
Sophomore middle blocker Rachel Lowry was on the freshman and junior varsity squads last year and earned a place on the varsity this fall.
"It's nice to see my hard work paid off," Lowry said of her club and high school seasons. "Our strength is that our whole team is outstanding. We're very consistent and stick together. No one person dominates. Our strength and passion for the game have grown with every match."
Coach Jenni Morgan has watched her team's improvement, especially in the region.
"A lot of times you see in team sports a couple of girls who want to win," she said. "We played every single match and every single point so we could walk out of there as region champ."
Dunbar's failure to make the prep volleyball Top 25 was a motivating force during the season.
"The first Top 25 and we weren't in it, no big deal," Morgan said. "The second poll, we had beaten some of the Top 25, but we weren't ranked. That got the girls' attention."
Still unranked, the Bulldogs withstood a tough schedule, got big-game experience and finally flourished. Service, serve-receive and defense have been team strengths, Morgan said.
"Teams can focus on a superstar, and they can be stopped," she said. "Opponents have to pay attention to every player on our team."
Morgan, in her fifth year at Dunbar, is excited for her team.
"Less than 5 percent of all high school athletes get to experience a state tournament," she said. "That's something. We want to make sure we enjoy it, but there's a goal. We want to represent Lexington and Dunbar well."