Last year, Henry Clay knocked on the glass ceiling that is high school volleyball in Kentucky, a sport dominated by private schools since play began in 1979. The Blue Devils were the first public school to even take one set in the state finals.
Ranked No. 4 in the state this preseason and returning experience that includes 6-foot-4 Penn State commit Kaitlyn Hord and more depth, Coach Dale Grupe’s says his team is ready to build on the history they’ve made.
“We’ve been fortunate. I think we’ve built a pretty good program,” he said as his team prepared to play in the preseason Bluegrass State Games. “I think the biggest thing is we compete so hard in practice and in matches — we’ve played such a tough schedule over the last several years that I think it’s just gotten us better and better every year.”
That schedule includes a competitive pack of city rivals many of whom have been helping turn out college-level players year-in and year-out.
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And while Henry Clay might be the favorite to win the 11th Region again this year, every city coach has reason to expect this season to be one of their best.
Seniors Kaitlyn Hord, Sierra Gray and Myana Carter and sophomore Taylor Trammell all earned all-city honors last year as starters. Hord has been competing this summer for the USA Girls’ Junior National Training Team. Grupe has three other seniors and a host of players who will be getting a real shot at contributing.
Gray said she and the other players have embraced the new dynamic and aren’t worried about a dropoff from last year’s historic season.
“If we just play our hardest like we always do, we’ll be fine,” Gray said.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ranked No. 11 in the coaches’ preseason poll released Friday, will depend on new players as well, but have all-city honorees back in seniors Savannah Dudek and Allie Chapman, junior Meredith Phillips and sophomore Eleanor Davis.
“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Coach Jennifer Morgan said. “We are in a very competitive district. So, you’ve got to come out and be ready to play every single district match.”
That district, the 43rd, includes Lexington Catholic, which has another nationally recognized standout in McKenna Vicini, a 6-1 middle hitter who joined Hord on the junior national team.
“This is the first year she looks physical. She’s able to hit the ball a lot harder,” said LexCath Coach Ashley Federle. “She’s a much bigger presence at the net. I think she’s going to be pretty intimidating up there as well.”
Federle expects major contributions from defenders Pam Byarlay, a senior, and junior Raegan Alexander as well.
Senior setter Sarah Pruner leads a Lafayette team that brings back a number of major contributors, including Caroline Bennett, Maliya Homer, Emmy Trammel and Lexi Lawson.
Coach Chris Langston says Pruner is probably the team’s best defensive specialist and has “the most big-time experience as far as playing club and that kind of stuff.”
In her first year at Bryan Station, Coach Hilary McKenzie took an 8-21 team to a record of 30-9. She brings back first team all-city player Rachael DeMarcus, who will be coming off an injury but should be a major factor as a setter. Standouts this preseason included all-around sophomore Samantha Walton and eighth-grader Izzy Carter, who showed up at tryouts and “blew our mind.”
“With the girls we have this year and the coaching staff, I feel very confident that we’re going to have a good run in the 11th Region this year,” McKenzie said. “We’re going to have a lot of wins.”
Tates Creek Coach Sara Chaffin feels like she has a brand new team, but even so, the Commodores come in ranked No. 18.
They’ll be led by seniors Claire Darland, an Austin Peay commit and Jordyn Chenault, who’s going to Bethune-Cookman. Lizzie Buchholtz steps up as the libero and transfer Madison Preece will play a big role.
“We’ve got girls that are hard-workers, tough players and bring a lot of skills to the court,” Chaffin said. “Things will be different than in the past, but I think a good different.”
At Sayre, a program that has only been in existence since 2013, the Spartans are coming off a 24-10 season that included six region wins. Now, led by standout senior Emerson White, they’re looking for the program’s first-ever win in the 42nd District.
“My freshman year was Sayre’s second year of having a volleyball team. So, I think we’ve really kind of tried to build the team,” White said. “(A district win is) one of my goals when we graduate this year: We want to leave our mark.”
Lexington Christian comes in young and undersized, and has Sophie Kendall and Brooke Tudor trying to lead a team with no seniors.
“We’re only returning a couple of starters so with my girls, I’m just looking for them to fill big roles and step up and make big plays,” Coach Kirby Willoughby said. “We have the talent, it’s just putting all the pieces together to make it work.”
All in the family
Erin Grupe, who played at Henry Clay for her dad and has coached at the club and middle school levels over the last few years, will be the first coach at Frederick Douglass. Douglass opens the season against the Blue Devils.
“For a while, it’s not going to be much of a rivalry, because we’re not at their level,” Erin Grupe said of facing her father. “Right now it’s kind of an aspiration. I hope to one day be a program like Henry Clay. … I hope to create something that can be really special here, too.”
Dale Grupe, of course, is proud of his daughter’s achievement.
“It’s a lot tougher being a high school head coach than a middle school head coach. But I think she’s done really well so far,” Dale Grupe said. “She’s got a great group of kids. Even though they’re young, I’ve watched them practice and they’re having fun, and that’s what counts. She doesn’t have any pressure on her. All they can do is keep moving up and up.”
Henry Clay vs. the power parochials: The Blue Devils face each of the perennial volleyball powers during the regular season: at Presentation, Aug. 18; vs. Notre Dame, Sept. 19; vs. Sacred Heart, Sept. 21; vs. Assumption, Oct. 3; at Mercy, Oct. 9; and at St. Henry, Oct. 12.
Dunbar at Henry Clay: Two highest rated preseason teams face off Sept. 6.
The 43rd District: While it looks like LCA might be a year away, Dunbar, Lafayette, Lexington Catholic and Tates Creek all have a belief they can come out on top. These games will decide whether that’s true — Lafayette at LexCath, Sept. 7; Dunbar at LexCath, Sept. 12; Tates Creek at Lafayette, Sept. 14; Dunbar at Tates Creek, Sept. 19; Tates Creek at LexCath, Sept. 21; and Lafayette at Dunbar, Sept. 26.
Bryan Station Defenders
Coach: Hilary McKenzie (2nd season)
Last season, 42 District: 30-9-0, lost 3-0 in region semis to Tates Creek
Outlook: McKenzie has found a formula for success, and feels confident the Defenders will have another outstanding season.
Player’s take: Sophomore Samantha Walton on the keys this year: “Just the chemistry we all have together. We all love the game so, so much. We just have to hustle, play defense, get scrappy, hit hard.”
Coach: Erin Grupe (first season)
Last season, 42nd District: This is Douglass’ first season as a program.
Outlook: A lot of underclassmen will get significant minutes, and that will give them an edge in years to come.
Player’s take: Sophomore Rachel Dodd: “It’s pretty insane, honestly to be the very first Douglass volleyball team … I think this season, we’ve just really got to work hard and start out really strong and positive. Help each other out as a team.”
Henry Clay Blue Devils
Coach: Dale Grupe (20th season)
Last season, 42nd District champion, 11th Region champion: 37-7, lost 3-1 in state finals to Sacred Heart.
Outlook: The Blue Devils have added depth to their experience, giving them a great shot at another magical run.
Player’s take: Senior Myana Carter: “If we play at our fullest potential, we’ll be there. We easily should be top five in the state again this year.”
Coach: Chris Langston (24th season).
Last season, 43rd District: 20-13, lost 3-0 in district semis to Dunbar.
Outlook: Generals combine experience with an influx of youth, and new energy could propel them to a spot in regional.
Player’s take: Senior Caroline Bennett: “I think we’re all going to be good. I don’t think there is going to be a weak spot in the district this year. It just comes down to game day. It will be hard during the season and tournament, but we’ll just see who goes the farthest.”
Lexington Catholic Lady Knights
Coach: Ashley Federle (fifth season)
Last season, 43rd District: 22-10, lost 3-2 in district semis to Tates Creek.
Outlook: With one of the nation’s best hitters in McKenna Vicini, and what feels like a wide open district field, the Lady Knights could make some noise.
Player’s take: Junior Raegan Alexander: “I’m really excited. The team looks really good this year. We have really good team chemistry and everyone works together and has energy.”
Lexington Christian Eagles
Coach: Kirby Willoughby (second season).
Last season, 43rd District: 10-20, lost 3-1 in district first round to Lexington Catholic.
Outlook: With no seniors on a smallish squad, Willoughby will be looking to develop toughness and experience this season.
Player’s take: Junior Brooke Tudor: “We’re going to definitely work harder than everyone else because we are young, but that doesn’t mean we can’t compete with them. We do have a small team, but we got it.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar Bulldogs
Coach: Jennifer Morgan (13th season).
Last season, 43rd District: 25-13, lost 3-0 in region first round to Henry Clay.
Outlook: Expect the Bulldogs to play with energy and confidence and be one of the best teams in the state again.
Player’s take: Senior Allie Chapman: “I think that a lot of people are going to be shocked at the way we come out. We’ve got freshmen and new people and we’re just all really playing well together.”
Coach: Leigh McCauley (2nd season).
Last season, 42nd District: 24-10, lost 3-0 in district semis to Henry Clay.
Outlook: A small school in a big-school district, the Spartans surprised last year and could do so again.
Player’s take: Senior Emerson White: “We all came in really early in the preseason, and we know that we want to get better. I think a lot of people in Lexington don’t really think of us as a big competitive team, so we are really trying to come in the gym and work here every day.”
Tates Creek Commodores
Coach: Sarah Chaffin (sixth season)
Last season, 43rd District champion: 31-8, lost 3-1 in region finals to Henry Clay.
Outlook: The Commodores are a bit younger, but have players ready to step up and back up their preseason top 25 ranking.
Player’s take: Senior Jordyn Chenault: “I would say our team’s really young, and we’re new to playing together, so it’s exciting to see what’s going to happen.”
KVCA Coaches Poll
The Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association released its preseason high school volleyball poll Friday.
(First place votes at noted in parenthesis.)
1. Assumption (21)
2. Sacred Heart (1)
3. Mercy Academy
4. Henry Clay
5. Notre Dame
7. North Oldham
9. St. Henry
10. Oldham County
11. Paul Laurence Dunbar
12. McCracken County
18. Tates Creek
20. Christian Academy-Louisville
22. Central Hardin
23. West Jessamine
24. Holy Cross (Louisville)
Poll conducted and distributed by the Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association. Poll voting for this week’s poll ended Wednesday, August 9.