Can a public Kentucky high school win the KHSAA volleyball state championship? History answers with a firm “No.”
Since 1979 — the sport’s first season in the commonwealth — six schools have won 37 volleyball titles. All six — Assumption, Mercy, Notre Dame, Sacred Heart, St. Henry and Villa Madonna — are Catholic private schools.
Sacred Heart, St. Henry and Villa Madonna have only one championship each to their credit. Notre Dame owns eight but hasn’t won since 1994. Mercy has seven. Assumption rules the roost; the Rockets boast 19 titles, including five of the last six.
If any school were to shock the state and become the first public institution to take a first-place volleyball trophy home, it would be Henry Clay, ranked fourth in the preseason. The Blue Devils bring back a strong top seven, featuring four seniors — Darby Music, Hallie Shelton, Jessica Sunnenberg and Emma Yarber — as well as juniors Myana Carter, Kaitlyn Hord and Sierra Gray.
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Coach Dale Grupe, in his 23rd season as a head coach and 19th with the Blue Devils, thinks this edition has the “potential to be the strongest team that has ever competed from Henry Clay.” Music, Shelton and Yarber were All-State selections last year, and Hord — a Penn State commitment — probably should have been.
Grupe’s schedule reflects the confidence he has in his group. They’ll compete in three major out-of-state tournaments, including the Asics Challenge in Chicago, as well as the Kentucky Challenge across town at Paul Laurence Dunbar. Also on the non-district docket are road matches at No. 1 Assumption and No. 3 Sacred Heart and home games versus No. 2 Mercy, No. 10 Ryle, No. 12 St. Henry, and No. 21 McCracken County.
Elsewhere in the city
▪ Leah Edmond, now a freshman playing for the University of Kentucky, was among four seniors who saw ample playing time last season for Paul Laurence Dunbar, ranked sixth in the coaches’ preseason poll. This year, Coach Jenni Morgan expects Jessie Durbin, Asia Henderson, Fran Macchiavello and Amanda Moore to step up as senior leaders, with juniors Allie Chapman and Savannah Dudek providing a lift as well. Newcomers Eleanor Davis, Peyton Gash, Macy Jundi, Virginia Smith, Meredith Phillips and Emma Underwood will give Dunbar a shot in the arm and help the Bulldogs live up to their preseason ranking.
▪ Tates Creek rounds out the three Lexington teams ranked inside the preseason top 10. The Commodores, rated No. 7, boast a six-deep senior class headlined by returning All-State selections Doris Carter (outside hitter committed to South Florida) and Macy Reihing (Ohio commitment who’s a defensive specialist). Lindsey Wilkins (an Indiana State commit) and Mary Catherine O’Neil are other seniors expected to provide big minutes in 2016, as will juniors Jordyn Chenault (outside hitter) and Claire Darland (middle blocker). Their motto this year? “Unfinished business.” Tates Creek has finished as 11th Region runner-up in three of the last four seasons and wants to send its group of seniors out with a trip to Louisville for a chance at the state title.
▪ Lexington Catholic wasn’t able to do itself many favors in 43rd District play last season but the Knights are favored to leave a mark in 2016. Coaches have them pegged as the state’s 25th-best team entering the season. Julia Hatcher, a middle hitter committed to Clemson, heads a senior class with plenty of playing experience, including Reilly Lowe (La Salle commit), Morgan Justice, Kelly Donnelly and Meghan Cason. McKenna Vicini, a sophomore middle hitter who was one of 24 players in the nation invited to train with the USA Youth National Team this summer, will also be a big factor for Coach Ashley Federle’s squad.
▪ Keyton Kinley, a senior who’s committed to the University of Tennessee, headlines a strong returning core for Lafayette. Caroline Bennett, Lexi Lawson, Sarah Pruner and Emily Trammel all received valuable playing experience as sophomores last season. Bennett, also a strong basketball player, has moved from outside hitter to setter this season and is quickly acclimating to the new role. Coach Chris Langston expects his team to be strong defensively and at controlling the ball.
▪ Lexington Christian returns only two starters from a team that went 22-14 last year. Senior Brooklyn Brinegar and junior Emma Mullins, along with sophomore Kaity Weitlauf, bring experience to the Eagles. New coach Kirby Willoughby, a former LCA basketball and volleyball player who played college volleyball at Eastern Kentucky, said the Eagles “will rely heavily on underclassmen to contribute early and quickly.” Fun fact: Willoughby is the daughter of University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
▪ New coaches Hilary McKenzie (Bryan Station) and Leigh Mccauly (Sayre) hope to end 42nd District Tournament droughts by their squads. Station hasn’t reached the finals of the four-team district since 2011; Sayre, in its fourth year with a program, is still seeking its first postseason win.
Preseason city coaches’ poll
Team (first-place votes)
1. Henry Clay (6)
2. Tates Creek
3. Paul Laurence Dunbar
4. Lexington Catholic
6. Lexington Christian
7. Bryan Station