Paul Laurence Dunbar, for a moment, seemed like it was bound for a sweep in the region finals.
Then, for another moment, it looked like the Bulldogs would leave Woodford County High School’s gymnasium wondering “What if?”
Finally, in the moment that mattered most, Dunbar stepped up and delivered a knockout blow to Henry Clay: a 15-7 decision in the fifth set of the 11th Region volleyball championship game.
Dunbar defeated the two-time defending region champs for the second time this season, this time earning its first region title and state-tournament berth since 2014. The Bulldogs will open the KHSAA State Volleyball Tournament against Rowan County, the 16th Region champion, at 2 p.m. at Valley High School on Friday, Nov. 3.
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“It’s really indescribable,” said senior Emma Berger. “We’ve worked so hard.”
Berger and fellow senior Hannah Tucker were not on Dunbar’s varsity roster the last time the Bulldogs reached the state tournament, but they paid their way as fans to get to cheer on their teammates from the student section three years ago. Now they’ll get to experience a state championship from the court.
“State sounds like Disney World,” Berger said.
“The environment, even being a fan my freshman year, you felt it,” Tucker said. “Everyone was at state because it’s so cool and new.”
Dunbar took the first two sets, 25-19 and 25-23, to bolt out to a 2-0 lead in the match. Henry Clay stayed alive with 25-21 and 25-20 wins in sets three and four to force a winner-take-all set to 15.
The Blue Devils (19-21) built a 5-0 lead in set three and led 14-4 before Dunbar pulled to within one point twice at 21-20 and 22-21. The Bulldogs (27-11) couldn’t complete the third-set comeback, but that rally provided confidence against a squad that, like their own team, was used to digging itself out of 0-2 holes throughout the season.
“When we took the first two sets I said, ‘It’s not over,’” Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan said. “Henry Clay is never to be one that will back down and we have been in battles with them the entire season. This was a five-setter and I had that feeling going into it. I didn’t think at all it would’ve been over as quick as we kind of came out in the beginning.”
Leah Edmond, now a star sophomore at the University of Kentucky, was a junior on Dunbar’s last state-tournament team. The Bulldogs don’t boast a player quite of that caliber but don’t lack for striking ability.
“We’ve known that we don’t have that one go-to person,” Berger said. “We don’t have Leah Edmond anymore. We don’t have Asia Henderson. But we have six amazing hitters.
“You can go to anyone on the court and they’re gonna put the ball down, and that’s what’s really made a difference. And we are all best friends and have so much fun playing the game.”
Paul Dunbar vs. Rowan County
First round: Nov. 3, 2 p.m. at Valley High School