Notre Dame ended Henry Clay's season with a 3-0 sweep Friday in the first round of the KHSAA state volleyball tournament at Valley High School in Louisville.
The Blue Devils (36-5), ranked fourth by the coaches, fell into a 2-0 hole by losing leads in a pair of tightly contested games, 27-25. The No. 5 Pandas jumped out to a 20-9 lead in the deciding game and finished it 25-15.
"We've played a lot of teams, and that was definitely the best team we played all year," Henry Clay Coach Dale Grupe said. "We went into the match knowing it was kind of a championship-level, heavyweight fight, and I'm proud of the way we fought. But they fought too. It was a battle royale."
Morgan Hentz, who has committed to Stanford as a libero, had 20 kills for the Pandas (32-5).
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"She proved why she's the top player in the state this year," Grupe said. " ... They set her a lot and she delivered, especially at big points."
Henry Clay led 13-9 in the first game after a kill by sophomore Kaitlyn Hord, but Notre Dame climbed back into it with a 10-5 run. The Blue Devils went up 25-24 after an error by Hentz but followed that with a service error. Hentz delivered two straight kills to close that game.
The Blue Devils held a 19-14 advantage in game two, but the Pandas again closed the gap. A kill by junior Hallie Shelton gave Henry Clay another set-clinching opportunity at 25-24, but Notre Dame finished with two kills by Sarah Draud and a winning point on an error by Shelton.
That error was originally called a kill but changed to a violation. Grupe said it was "a terrible way to lose game two" and thought it took the wind out of the Blue Devils' sails early in the final game.
"We fell behind really big in the third game, and I'm really proud of that we kept fighting," Grupe said.
Shelton finished with 17 kills to lead Henry Clay.
While Henry Clay was above Notre Dame in the Kentucky coaches' rankings, Grupe said "they've never deserved to be below us yet." The Pandas are ranked 12th in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com; the Blue Devils are ranked 93rd.
Entering the tournament, Kentucky had four top-100 volleyball teams — Assumption (11th), Notre Dame, Mercy (30th) and Henry Clay — in the bottom half of the state bracket.
"In the nation, our state was talked about as a pretty silly state tournament," Grupe said. "It's kind of embarrassing that we have five teams ranked in the top 100, and we don't showcase it."
The Blue Devils return all but one player, senior Raven Barleston, next season. Grupe was able to get Sacred Heart on the schedule this season and hopes to be able to add the other state powerhouses in 2016. As for the finale to 2015?
"We had our chances and didn't quite get there, but there's nothing to be ashamed of," Grupe said.