LOUISVILLE — Henry Clay rang up the biggest victory in the history of Lexington volleyball by beating perennial power Mercy in the first round of the state tournament Friday afternoon in Bellarmine University's Knights Hall.
The Blue Devils, rated No. 6 in the state, didn't just upset No. 3 Mercy, they dominated the six-time state champions, trailing only occasionally on their way to a 25-15, 25-22 sweep.
Next up for Henry Clay is an even bigger challenge. It will face No. 1 Assumption, a 15-time state champ, in Saturday morning's quarterfinals.
But the Devils weren't worried about their next match while soaking up their victory over Mercy.
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After Elle Barnett provided the final kill against the Jaguars, Henry Clay's players did a celebratory dance, accepted high-fives and hugs from their fans, then whooped it up in their locker room.
"It'll take a while to believe we just beat the infamous Mercy," Devils senior Jordan Strickland said, unable to contain her glee.
Dale Grupe, in his 18th year as Henry Clay's coach and closing in on 500 victories, said it was "by far the biggest win" of his career.
And he all but predicted it.
Leading up to the Devils' eighth appearance in the state tournament, Grupe gave his team a good chance to knock off Mercy, even though the Jaguars swept Henry Clay in a three-set match just a few weeks ago.
"We used that as a gauge to see where we were, and to develop a game plan for when we played them here," he said.
The Devils executed that game plan — based on accurate serving and passing — to perfection.
"We picked them apart," Grupe said. "We were serving and hitting the zones we were going after. They weren't able to pass it close to the net.
"We changed our blocking assignments, too, to stop their best hitter (Amanda Crask)."
Natsuki Yamawaki, whose serves were a key to the victory, said, "We knew all we needed to do was serve and pass and we'd win. And we did it."
Henry Clay jumped ahead 9-4 in the first set, prompting Mercy Coach Todd Garvey to call a timeout. The Jaguars steadied themselves for a while, but Henry Clay came on strong again.
Led by senior outside hitter Emily Stromberg's three kills and a block, the Devils went on a 12-3 run to win the set going away.
The second set was much closer, and when Mercy edged in front 13-12, Strickland appeared to have turned an ankle on the play. But she picked herself up, and that seemed to pick up Henry Clay's spirits.
The Devils regained control, with Emily McClendon, Nicole Jenkins, Yamawaki and Barnett providing the big plays and a 17-14 lead.
When Mercy closed to within 22-21, Grupe called his only timeout of the day.
"He told us to take a deep breath, and to take our time and let Mercy think about being behind," Strickland said.
Out of the timeout, Stromberg delivered a kill to make it 23-21. Mercy got the next point, but Henry Clay put the Jaguars away with kills by Stromberg and Barnett.
Stromberg finished with nine kills. McClendon had four. Jenkins and Barnett had three apiece.
Strickland finished with 16 assists. Yamawaki led with eight digs, and Elizabeth Combs had seven.
Before Friday's victory, Henry Clay's biggest volleyball accomplishment was reaching the state semifinals last year before losing to Mercy.
Strickland didn't want the Jaguars to end her season, and her career.
"They played great, but we came out with more heart," she said. "We couldn't let this be the end for us."