Lexington’s top programs battle as city celebrates 25 years of high school volleyball
Chris Langston has watched a lot of volleyball. He’s been there for every practice and every game at Lafayette High School since 1993, when the sport was a non-varsity newborn in Fayette County.
The Generals had seven balls.
“So we’d get in line and try to teach ’em how to pass and we’d all have to shag the balls around the gym because we didn’t have enough to keep it going,” Langston said.
That 1993 season was one coached by unpaid volunteers, most of whom had no professional coaching background in the sport. In Lafayette’s case it was the combined effort of Langston, who went to Murray State on a baseball scholarship but also played club volleyball for three years, and Karen Vanover, a cheerleading and swimming coach who sought the challenge of getting a new program up and running.
“Having played it didn’t mean I could coach it at all,” said Langston, who’s been Lafayette’s head coach since 2000. “We just kind of found our way through it.”
Fast forward 25 years, and Fayette County schools aren’t just good, but dominant: a Lexington public school has qualified for the state tournament every year since 2005, a streak unmatched by the city in any other single-class team sport. And there are plenty of balls to go around.
“Now we have over a hundred,” Langston said.
‘Better me than nobody’
Teresa Isaac, who would go on to become Lexington’s mayor in 2002, was on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Board of Control when she became vice mayor of the city in 1992. That made her a prime target of parents concerned with sports inequity the following year.
“A lot of parents came to me and said ‘the Fayette County schools don’t offer an equal amount of sports for boys and girls, will you do something to add volleyball?’ Isaac said. “So I went to the school board and spoke at a meeting and asked them to survey schools to see if there was enough interest.”
The interest was there, so Isaac directed Urban-County Government funds toward PTAs at each school — “because it’s illegal for us to give it directly to the schools” — which helped pay for basic equipment and balls at the city’s then-five public schools. Isaac was friends with some people who played adult sand volleyball at A1A Sandbar and Grille (demolished in 2016) and helped solicit volunteers.
The next hurdle was making volleyball an official varsity sport in the city. Former Herald-Leader reporter Susan White wrote that a May 1994 school board discussion to do just that was “so convoluted that volleyball supporters in the audience shook their heads.”
Patti Stanton, who learned the game as an adult and played in local leagues, was at that meeting. Jona Braden, who would eventually become the head coach at the University of Kentucky, asked Stanton to help with UK’s summer volleyball camps when she was an assistant under Kathy DeBoer, and Stanton agreed on the condition that she could participate in the same drills as the girls who would come to camp so she too could improve her skills.
A few summers’ worth of camp drills was enough for the UK staff to recommend Stanton for the head coaching spot at Bryan Station.
“They figured I knew as much about volleyball as anyone in Lexington by the time that was all over,” Stanton said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, I’m not a coach, I’m a music teacher.’ But I figured better me than nobody. I just absolutely loved it.”
Her rose-colored perspective wasn’t just hindsight. Stanton spoke emphatically at that 1994 meeting as school-board members brought up the difficulty of paying new coaches when other sports were already on a tight budget.
“If I had to choose between putting the money into coaches or the program, I’d choose the program over me,” Stanton said then.
In the end, volleyball supporters got what they wanted — a 3-1 decision validated the efforts of volunteers and the community that brought them to girls who just wanted a chance to play.
The mail man
Four Lexington schools have qualified for the state tournament — Henry Clay, Lafayette, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Tates Creek — and at least one of them has been present at 22 of the 24 events that have been played since varsity sponsorship began (there were a few years where two teams made it to state in the same season before the KHSAA began using a Sweet Sixteen-style format for volleyball in 2003). There’s a better chance than not that it will be 23 of 25 after this season is completed.
Henry Clay has led the city’s cause. The Blue Devils have played in 13 state tournaments and were the first Lexington school to qualify, in 1995 as a regional runner-up to Woodford County. Henry Clay’s bid in 2016 was the best by any public school in state history — it was the first non-private school to win a set in the state championship game.
“In retrospect, I think we blew it,” said Blue Devils Coach Dale Grupe, whose team lost to Sacred Heart, 3-1, that year. “I think we had a great chance. We had it in our grasp and we didn’t do what we needed to do. You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities when you get them.”
Grupe has been the head coach at Henry Clay since 1998. He was Woodford County’s coach in that 1995 region championship game, the second of four straight region title teams at the school before he left it after the 1997 season.
Then an ROTC instructor at UK, Grupe was ready for a career change, so he left the Air Force and became an overnight mail sorter at the U.S. Post Office on Nandino Boulevard in Lexington, where he lived. That lasted four months before he accepted the open volleyball job at Henry Clay along with a special education teaching position.
“Luckily the people (at Henry Clay), one of them had a daughter and didn’t even know me. She just reached out and said, ‘You interested in coaching next year?’ Grupe said. “And I said, ‘Ya know, this post office gig’s not much fun.’”
Grupe has operated youth clubs and coaching clinics for the better part of three decades in the area. He wasn’t directly involved in the origin of Lexington high school volleyball but he’s been a driving force in the sport’s ascension since.
“Back when I started coaching, he and his wife were doing clinics at KBA in 2003 for the middle school coaches and I thought that was great,” said Tates Creek High School Coach Sara Martin. “I still have that binder of stuff. ... I love that he wants to grow the game in the town. He’s reaped the benefits of it but everybody else has too.”
‘Look how far we’ve come’
Martin and Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan are both from Indiana, which — like Louisville and northern Kentucky — was decades ahead of Lexington in its support of volleyball.
“I don’t know why Lexington was so far behind,” Martin said. “ ... The northern states had volleyball more and it trickled down. I’ve said this for years, too, but this is a big town of UK cheerleaders and I think all the little girls here wanted to grow up and be a UK cheerleader. We’re a UK basketball town, too, so the girls played basketball because the families all watch basketball. It just didn’t catch on.
“But I’m glad it did. My gosh, look how far we’ve come.”
National-level club programs throughout the Midwest helped develop it into a premier region for the cultivation of volleyball talent, by extension improving the level of play at the high school level. Chris Beerman, another Indiana native, recognized a void for such a program in Lexington when in 2008 he joined Craig Skinner’s staff at UK, and founded Lexington United Volleyball in 2011.
“Dale and Jenni and all the older high school coaches had always tried to get something going here but it’s so hard when you’re affiliated with a high school and you’re a high school coach and a teacher,” Beerman said. “You just don’t have the full-time ability to run a club, with the numbers. ... That immediately made it a good thing for everybody. It got started on such a strong footing with everyone’s support.”
Beerman, who for eight years was head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, believes LUV now is on par with elite club programs in Louisville, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. In addition numerous other Division I signees it has produced three top-10 national recruits in the last four years — Leah Edmond (Dunbar), Kaitlyn Hord (Henry Clay) and McKenna Vicini (Lexington Catholic). Only one other club in the nation, Houston Juniors in Texas, can tout that fact.
“That’s a really cool thing,” Beerman said. “But beyond the big-timers, the depth and numbers are off the chart. It’s not all about the McKennas and the Kaityn Hords, it’s also about the kid who wants to make her middle school team.”
Lexington high schools still face a tough road when it comes to winning a state title, though, because the area’s top talent is spread more thinly than in Louisville, where a trio of private schools — Assumption, Mercy and Sacred Heart — attract the best players inside and outside the city limits.
Only six schools — those three Louisville programs along with Notre Dame, St. Henry and Villa Madonna — have won state volleyball titles. No team outside the Louisville trio has won a title since 1994.
“If you took our best players in the city of Lexington and put ‘em all at a private school, or all on one team, we’d beat those teams,” Beerman said. “ ... It’s gonna be tough to catch them with just public school kids spread out, and I think all the high school coaches know that as well. It would be an unbelievable feat if a Lexington public school won a state championship. That would be a national story just because of what they’re up against.”
Morgan, who played for Beerman’s father, Tom, in high school, is optimistic about Lexington’s championship viability.
“That gap is hard to close but is it doable? Yeah,” Morgan said. “Think about how much we’ve closed it now in the last decade.”
Grupe is the coaching director for another club — the Kentucky Ohana Volleyball Academy — which operates out of The Yard, a multi-purpose athletic facility that opened last year near Leestown Road. It and the Kentucky Basketball Commission — where LUV operates — get the job done, but neither is a dedicated volleyball facility; Louisville has several.
The existence of such a venue is necessary for Lexington high schools to catch up with the Louisville juggernauts, Grupe believes, as it would enable girls at the elementary level to get increased exposure to the game, as they do in Louisville and the Cincinnati area.
“I guess I’ll just have to play the lottery and take care of that,” Grupe said with a laugh. “Basically, it’s gonna come down to somebody with a kid or a grand-kid that wants to do something great for the area. You can’t get into it thinking you’re going to make money, you’ve got to basically do it for the love of it and know that you’re going to take a loss for a while.”
Still, growth has occurred despite a shortage of facilities. In addition to club opportunities, Lexington’s middle school program has blossomed over the past decade, providing a better feeder system for the high schools. Natural athletes are more willing to give the sport a chance than 25 years ago, when it was viewed with skepticism against more deeply rooted team sports.
Volunteer coaches who were first introduced to volleyball in their 30s have given way to instructors who grew up with the sport, but a still-thriving adult-playing community means assistants can just as easily originate from the sand courts at Marikka’s as anywhere else.
“It’s a very social sport, it’s a very athletic sport, it’s very explosive. It’s got a lot of good qualities,” Beerman said. “I’m just glad that we’re in such a great city here with the coaches, parents and kids we have. It probably will only keep growing.”
All six Fayette County teams took winning records into the 2018 postseason. Frederick Douglass, coached by Dale’s daughter Erin Grupe, qualified for the region tournament in the program’s second year of existence, and Bryan Station has become a much-greater threat under third-year coach Hilary McKenzie. Both should challenge to add their names to the state-qualifying list in the next decade.
Isaac, whose daughter Alicyn eventually played at Henry Clay, continues to follow high school volleyball. As does Stanton, who coached at Winburn Middle School for eight years after leaving Bryan Station. Grupe and Langston got the bug and are in their third decade coaching girls in Lexington. The city’s younger coaches could easily match those tenures — they’ve already rivaled the passion.
“It’s contagious,” Morgan said. “I think it’s one of the best female sports there is. It’s the best team sport, I feel, because you can’t just have one player. It’s the one sport where you can’t guarantee you’re going to get the ball to your best player. It’s an all-around team sport and it’s a time where girls can feel like a contributor and be a part of something, and find their niche.”