Henry Clay won the 11th Region volleyball title for the second year in a row by beating Lafayette on Thursday night, which gave the Blue Devils plenty of reason to smile. But then it seems they're always smiling.
Henry Clay Coach Dale Grupe constantly tells his team to enjoy itself on the court, no matter the score, the setting or the situation.
"It's a sport, it's a game, so it's got to be fun," Grupe said. "When we start taking it more like a job or a business, that's when we get in trouble."
When the Devils found themselves in a tight finals matchup with Lafayette — they trailed 15-14 in the first set and were tied 14-14 in the second set — they were still smiling, slapping hands, encouraging each other.
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And Henry Clay turned that fun into furious finishes.
"We knew we had to bring it, and we brought it," senior setter Jordan Strickland said with a champion's grin.
The Devils blitzed Lafayette 11-3 down the stretch to win the first set 25-18, then used an 11-2 run to close out the second set 25-16 and earn a trip to next week's state tournament.
No. 6 Henry Clay (32-8) will face 6th Region winner and No. 3 Mercy in the first round at Bellarmine University Friday afternoon. The Jaguars beat No. 4 Louisville Holy Cross 25-8, 25-19 Thursday.
Lafayette, in the region finals for the first time in five years, gave the Devils a tougher battle than it did in last week's district finals.
"This was a heck of a match," Grupe said. "Lafayette didn't lose it. We actually had to go out and win it. That's what made it so fun."
Henry Clay got big contributions from a lot of players, with Strickland and senior outside hitter Emily Stromberg leading the way.
Stromberg had 14 kills on the night, including four of the last five points.
"I loved it," said Strickland, who set up most of Stromberg's spikes. "She was on her game tonight. She was my money bank."
Stromberg said she played with an urgency because "it's my senior year, and I could not let it be my last match."
Freshman CaLayci Coffey had perhaps her best game of the season, highlighted by a couple key blocks and kills.
Grupe also credited the back-row play of Nicole Jenkins, Natsuki Yamawaki and Ariana Andres.
"This team has been resilient all year," Grupe said. "They stay with it, and they know when to turn it on. Even when it was close, I don't think they ever had any doubts."
Lafayette closed out a 30-7 season with a gritty performance. Coach Chris Langston praised the play of Emily Kincaid, Sarah Jenkins, Annie King and Chandler Kinley, and his entire team's fight.
"I just wanted our girls to play well against them, and that's probably as good as we can play," Langston said. "Henry Clay is just so good. But I really felt our girls showed what they can do."