Defending 11th Region volleyball champion Paul Laurence Dunbar knocked off higher-ranked Henry Clay to win the 41st District title Wednesday night.
"I guess they can't keep saying they're the underdogs now," Henry Clay Coach Dale Grupe said after the No. 9 Bulldogs beat his No. 6 Blue Devils for the second time in three weeks.
"Technically, I think we can say we're still underdogs," said Dunbar senior Brianna Hill. "Henry Clay is still ranked higher than us in the state, and we're always a little underappreciated.
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"We'll always have that underdog mentality."
Dunbar (31-9) and Henry Clay (33-4) both advance to the region tournament at Franklin County next week. It will be a huge surprise if they don't meet again in the finals, with a trip to the state tournament on the line.
There was little more than pride on the line in the district title match, but that was more than enough motivation for both teams.
Henry Clay never trailed in the first game and won it 25-19.
Dunbar never trailed in the second game and romped 25-15.
The third game couldn't have been closer.
There were 10 ties, the last at 17, before Dunbar eked out a 25-23 win to take the match.
Everyone seemed to have a hand in the Bulldogs' victory. Madison Hatcher provided a lot of the punch, along with Hill, Lauren Travis, Rachel Lowry, Corie Roberts and Shelby Marnitz.
Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan credited her team's spirit and intensity more than anything.
"The last couple of weeks we've really focused on heart," she said. "I think they just decided they really wanted to win tonight, and they showed they had the heart."
After Dunbar lost the first game, Hill said, Morgan implored the team "to show how much heart you have, and leave it here. That's definitely what pulled it out for us."
Grupe said his team showed its determination, too, especially after it was blown out in the second game.
"I was proud of the way they fought in the third game," he said. "We're going to compete, win or lose."
Emily and Kate Stromberg helped the Devils stick with Dunbar early in the third game, and Mikayla Reese's blocks made it a close finish.
But it wasn't enough.
Grupe said the loss will serve as motivation for Henry Clay, which is aiming for its fourth region title in this decade.
"I think this loss got the girls' attention," he said. "They respected Dunbar to begin with, but now they know they've really gotta bring it next week."
Morgan said the Bulldogs' victory is a "confidence booster" for her girls, "but if we meet Henry Clay again, we know it'll be the same kind of match where whoever plays the hardest will be the winner."
Hill and her teammates know the challenge ahead.
"We won tonight, but we know we'll have to work at least 10 times as hard to keep proving ourselves," she said.
"And we're excited we have to do that."
Defenders win 42nd
Bryan Station dominated Madison Central in the first set and held on in the second for a 25-6, 25-23 sweep of Madison Central in the 42nd District finals.
The host Defenders extended their winning streak to eight matches and have won 15 of 16.
Players, coaches of the year
Region-by-region players and coaches of the year as announced Wednesday by the Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association (player listed first, followed by coach in each region):
1st — Madi Parker (Lone Oak); Rhett McMullen (Paducah Community Christian). 2nd — Emily Meeks (Caldwell Co.); Anita Watkins (Henderson Co.). 3rd — Bridget Johnson (Apollo); Steve Howard (Owensboro Catholic). 4th — Amber Salleng (Edmonson Co.); Sheila Yokley (Edmonson Co.). 5th — Shauna Stone (Nelson Co.); John Rogers (Nelson Co.). 6th — Caitlin Welch (Mercy); Todd Garvey (Mercy). 7th — Emily Juhl (Sacred Heart); Laura Pfeffer (Whitefield Academy). 8th — Kelly Moyer (Oldham Co.); Callaway Logan (Oldham Co.). 9th — Leslie Schellhaas (Notre Dame); Maureen Kaiser (St. Henry). 10th — Natalie Penrod (Campbell Co.); Whitney Edwards (Highlands). 11th — Maddie Hatcher (Paul Laurence Dunbar); Dale Grupe (Henry Clay). 12th — Kim Phelps (Pulaski Co.); Cate Guthrie (Boyle Co.). 13th — Erica Burchett (South Laurel); Kaye Smith (South Laurel). 14th — Victoria Halcomb (Letcher Co. Central); Dickie Adams (Letcher Co. Central). 15th — Kelsey Jones (Allen Central); Larry Maynard (Allen Central). 16th — Sierra Crum (Ashland Blazer); Jeff Huff (Ashland Blazer).