It was an up-and-down volleyball season for Paul Laurence Dunbar, but it's ending on an uptick. The Bulldogs are in the state tournament for the first time in five years.
Dunbar plays Green County in the first round Friday at Valley High School in Louisville.
"It was a roller-coaster ride this season," Coach Jenni Morgan said. "When you lose it's easy to pull apart, but the girls regrouped and refocused on their goals.
"I'm proud of the way they fought back, got mentally tough and won the region."
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Morgan credited her seniors for providing the leadership that helped Dunbar weather a difficult stretch during which it dropped seven of 12 matches, including a loss to Tates Creek in the district finals.
Olivia Canales, a senior outside hitter, said the team adopted the right mind-set.
"We talked about how winning isn't everything," she said. "It's about how if we play together, winning is going to come naturally. When we make mistakes, that's what we think about — just trying to lift each other up."
Claire Huskey, a senior setter/defensive specialist, said the team is built on a solid base. "We realize our foundation is our friendship, and being teammates means having each other's backs."
In Canales, who has committed to play at Texas Christian, and junior Leah Edmond, who has committed to Kentucky, Dunbar has top-level talent.
The Bulldogs' strong supporting cast includes senior setter Mary Martin, senior middle hitter Rachel Brown, junior middle hitter Katie Shunk, sophomore outside hitter Asia Henderson and sophomore libero Francesca Macchiavello.
No. 7 Dunbar is the fourth highest rated team in the tournament, behind No. 1 Mercy, No. 3 Sacred Heart and No. 4 Notre Dame.
Morgan thinks Lexington volleyball has closed the gap on the Louisville and Northern Kentucky powers.
"I think we're right there behind them now," she said. "We've grown and developed a pretty good name. Club and high school (volleyball) combined have increased the level of play in Lexington."
Those traditional Louisville and Northern Kentucky powers have eliminated Lexington teams from the tournament the past several years.
In 2008, Dunbar made it to the semifinals before losing to Sacred Heart. In 2009, the Bulldogs fell in the quarterfinals to Notre Dame.
In 2011, Henry Clay beat Mercy in the first round but lost to Assumption in the quarterfinals. In 2012, the Blue Devils lost in the semifinals to Assumption. In 2013, they lost in the semifinals to Notre Dame.
If Dunbar beats Green County on Friday, it will probably meet No. 18 Owensboro Catholic in the second round. If the Bulldogs reach the semifinals, either Notre Dame or Sacred Heart figures to be waiting for them.
Huskey said Dunbar is ready for any challenge.
"No matter who's on the other side of the court, we're going to love each other, we're going to play our game and we're going to compete."