HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — The volleyball state tournament bracket says Paul Laurence Dunbar fell short of what it accomplished last season.
Last season, the ninth-ranked Bulldogs advanced to the state semifinals before being ousted.
This season they fell in the Saturday morning quarterfinals to No. 3 Notre Dame 25-18, 25-18.
But that's just on paper.
Coach Jenni Morgan said she thinks her program took a giant leap forward this weekend at Northern Kentucky University's Regents Hall.
"When we played last year it was (25-6 and 25-8) games," Morgan said of the semifinal loss to Sacred Heart. "We took this team to 25-18, 25-18, and it's proving that we're closing that gap with the top teams.
"I told my girls to be really proud because they opened a lot of people's eyes. Nobody thought they would come out and give Notre Dame the game that they did."
Pandas Coach Andrea Lanham was glad her team got through to the next round to face Mercy.
"Dunbar was very scrappy and played with a ton of heart," Lanham said. "We were up and down a little bit, but overall the girls realized this was it and they played hard until the end."
The Pandas were led by Jaimie Wulfeck, who had nine kills. Shelby Reid and Liz Barton added seven kills each.
Notre Dame grabbed a 7-1 lead in the first game and looked like it might run away with it, but Dunbar fought back to make it 12-11 on a Maddie Hatcher kill.
The Pandas responded with a 10-3 run to take a 21-14 lead that would propel them forward. Wulfeck had three kills and a block in that span.
Dunbar was able to grab an early lead in the second game and kept it close until 12-10, when the Pandas used a 7-0 run to take control for good.
"We let a lot of balls drop that we usually don't allow," Wulfeck said. "Our hitting was solid, but we let a lot of balls drop, a lot of tips dropped in and stuff."
Morgan said her team did everything it could against the Pandas, whom she called a "great team."
"Our girls made great hustle plays; they played scrappy and they got kills," Morgan said.
Senior Brianna Hill and junior Lauren Travis led the Bulldogs with five kills apiece. Hatcher and Rachel Lowry each added four kills.
Dunbar loses seven seniors from this year's team, but will return key players like Hatcher, Lowry, Travis and Christin Haney, who had a team-high nine assists.
"The girls who are coming back next year will be hungry to get back here again," Morgan said. "They have the potential to come back here and do even bigger things."