When Henry Clay's volleyball team is playing well, the players are smiling, giggling and encouraging one another.
When the Blue Devils aren't playing well, they're still smiling, giggling and encouraging one another.
"That's just us," said junior middle blocker Ca'Layci Coffey. "We're all so close-knit. Even in the locker room before the game we're having a blast, dancing and laughing and having a good time.
"Once we get on the court, we have fun, too. We just enjoy each other's company."
The smiles come easier with winning, of course, and Henry Clay does a lot of that. The Devils, four-peat 11th Region champions, are in the state tournament for the sixth time in eight years, and for the 13th time in Dale Grupe's 20 seasons as coach.
Henry Clay plays Allen Central in the first round of the 16-team competition at Louisville Valley on Friday. The No. 10 Devils are expected to reach the semifinals where they would likely meet No. 3 Notre Dame. (No. 1 Mercy and No. 2 Assumption are in the upper bracket.)
Grupe constantly implores his players to have fun, "and this group has taken that to heart more than any group we've ever had," he said.
Henry Clay's players typically adopt a movie theme (usually Disney) each season to give them something else to laugh about. This year it's Despicable Me 2. Its main characters include Gru and his minions.
"It works perfect for us," Coffey said. "Coach Grupe is Gru, and we're his minions."
And these minions are on a mission to reach the state finals. Gru, er Grupe, thinks the Devils' state tournament experience will help them reach that goal.
Elle Barnett and junior setter Lynsey Short agree.
"Experience is very valuable because we've seen the competition and the atmosphere there," Short said. "We know what to expect."
Barnett said she'll "still get excited and caught up in the moment a little bit, but I know what it's going to be like. I think we'll play with confidence and have fun."
Henry Clay freshman Hallie Shelton is a veteran, too, having led the Devils in kills against No. 1 Assumption in last year's state semifinals.
Two years ago the Devils toppled perennial power Mercy in the first round of the state, and Grupe thinks his program is still reaping the benefits of that upset.
"If we're fortunate enough to get to play Notre Dame in the semifinals, I think the girls will feel pretty comfortable.
"They know Notre Dame is not any better than Mercy was. They know we'll put together a good game plan, and if they go out, have fun and execute it a little bit, we'll have a fighting chance."
Coffey is a believer.
"Just because we might have to play Notre Dame, we're not scared of a name on a jersey," she said. "We just want to compete and play hard no matter who's on the other side of the net."
Grupe has toughened his team by putting it through a grueling in-state and out-of-state schedule this year.
"The girls aren't going to back down to anybody," he said. "I know that for sure."State volleyball
at Valley High School
Friday (matches listed the way they fall in bracket)
Wayne County vs. Mercy, 2 p.m.; Hazard vs. Oldham County, 11 a.m.; Apollo vs. Assumption, 12:30 p.m.; Whitley County vs. McCracken County, 9:30 a.m.
Logan County vs. Raceland, 5 p.m.; Henry Clay vs. Allen Central, 3:30 p.m.; Campbell County vs. Notre Dame, 8 p.m.; Green County vs. Henderson County, 6:30.
Quarterfinals at 10 a.m., 11:30, 1 p.m., 2:30.
Semifinals at 7 p.m. and 8:30.
Finals at 2 p.m.