Henry Clay volleyball star Jordan Strickland, 11th Region player of the year, wants to close out her high school career in style. "I'd like to leave by doing something great at state," the all-state senior setter said.
Strickland didn't have to spell out what would qualify as a "great" accomplishment in this weekend's state tournament. The Blue Devils want to beat Mercy, their first-round foe, Friday afternoon at Bellarmine University.
Mercy, a six-time state champ, beat Henry Clay in last year's semifinals, and won a regular-season match against the Devils last month.
But Henry Clay Coach Dale Grupe said he "feels really good" about his team's chances of pulling an upset.
"We match up well with them in hitting, digging and blocking. I think it'll come down to passing and serving," he said. "I'm confident we have a much better game in our arsenal than when we played them a few weeks ago."
So does Devils senior outside hitter Emily Stromberg. "I think Mercy will underestimate us a little," she said. "We want to show them we can play. I know we can beat them."
Grupe, 11th Region coach of the year for the third year in a row, readied his players for this challenge with a regular-season schedule that included No. 1 Assumption, No. 3 Mercy, No. 5 Manual and No. 12 St. Henry.
"We've played too many good teams to get flustered by this," Grupe said of his No. 6 Devils. "I think we're ready."
Besides Strickland and Stromberg, Henry Clay will rely on three other seniors — hitter Nicole Jenkins, defensive specialist Ariana Andres and reserve defender Denise Schaeffer.
Grupe expects juniors Emily McClendon and Natsuki Yamawaki to handle the hubbub with poise, and he thinks sophomore Elle Barnett and Ca'Layci Coffey are battle-tested as well.
Strickland said the Devils' mental approach will be the key against Mercy. "If we can just get their 'name' out of our heads, we can beat them."
If Henry Clay does upset the Jaguars, it will likely face 15-time state champ Assumption in the quarterfinals.
"Assumption is definitely the cream of the crop," Grupe said of the Rockets, who sport a 39-1 record. Their only loss was to a Georgia team.
There are no soft spots in Henry Clay's half of the bracket. It includes the five highest-rated teams in the tournament — Assumption, Mercy, Henry Clay, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 13 Newport Central Catholic.
No private schools are in the top bracket, where the highest-rated teams are No. 14 North Oldham, No. 15 Greenwood, No. 19 Lone Oak and No. 20 Central Hardin.
Strickland is taking some consolation in the way the tournament draw turned out.
"If we lose, at least there'll still be a public school in the finals," she said.
This is Henry Clay's sixth state tournament appearance under Grupe since 2001.