Paul Laurence Dunbar wants to be back in the KHSAA State Volleyball Tournament. The Bulldogs got one step closer to feeding that desire on Wednesday night.
Dunbar defeated Bryan Station 3-1 in the semifinal round of the 11th Region tournament at Woodford County High School. The victory put the Bulldogs back in the region finals for the first time since 2014, which was also the last time they won the region.
Dunbar will face Henry Clay in the finals on Thursday night. Henry Clay defeated Tates Creek 3-1 in the second semifinal.
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Bryan Station sought its first berth to the finals in school history. The Defenders won the opening set 25-21 before Dunbar evened things with a 25-17 decision. A pivotal third set was in Bryan Station’s clutches — the Defenders led much of the set and had a 23-20 advantage late — before Dunbar scored five straight points to take a 25-23 win.
A back-and-forth fourth set eventually finished in Dunbar’s favor, 25-21.
“That third set was key,” Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan said. “After coming back, we needed to win that to get the confidence to go into the fourth set.”
Senior libero Allie Chapman said that Dunbar, winners of nine straight, is playing with a target on its back and sometimes lets that get to its head.
“I think it’s just our nerves,” Chapman said. “This whole tournament, everyone’s coming for us because we’re Dunbar. Every year everybody goes balls out against us and we have to play our hardest every single game.”
Bryan Station ended with a 29-8 record, one win shy of matching the program-record total that it set last season. The Defenders, in their second season under Coach Hilary McKenzie, put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2009-2010.
“She’s done a great job with them and gotten some really great players over there,” Morgan said. “She has put together a really solid program and, honestly, being here as long as I have been here, it’s exciting to see that because it helps the city.”
McKenzie thought her girls played hard enough to pull through but wasn’t able to dig quite deep enough when it needed to.
“This is a very teachable moment. Let this moment soak in,” McKenzie said. “You had it, and you gave it away. We were so, so close but they get to taste this feeling of being let down and broken-hearted and in tears, and I think we’re gonna grow from it and build on it. I just told ’em to never let go of this disappointment. I think if we carry that in our heart, it’s gonna show next season and we’re gonna learn how to win.”
Station will lose 11th Region Player of the Year Rachael DeMarcus — a senior setter who has committed to South Alabama — to graduation, but she’s mentored Izzy Carter, an eighth-grader who played in Station’s defensive back line this year, to take over the position in 2018.
“We were blessed to have Rachael DeMarcus come to us, and without her this program wouldn’t have turned around,” McKenzie said.
It was the first time the 11th Region semifinals were comprised of all Lexington teams since 2011.
Morgan, the 11th Region Coach of the Year, opined about the finals matchup without yet knowing Dunbar’s foe.
“This is gonna be a great game between two great programs,” Morgan said. “Tomorrow I wouldn’t expect anything else but one competitive match to get the regional championship and to the state tournament.”
11th Region finals at Woodford County
6 p.m.: Paul Dunbar vs. Henry Clay