High School Sports

Henry Clay optimistic, realistic entering state volleyball tourney

Henry Clay celebrated after the fifth and final game of the match between Henry Clay and Tates Creek for the 11th regional volleyball championship at Madison Southern High School in Berea, Ky., on Oct. 18, 2012. Henry Clay won the match 3-2. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Henry Clay celebrated after the fifth and final game of the match between Henry Clay and Tates Creek for the 11th regional volleyball championship at Madison Southern High School in Berea, Ky., on Oct. 18, 2012. Henry Clay won the match 3-2. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

On one hand, Henry Clay appears to have a favorable draw as the Girls' State Volleyball Tournament is set to open Friday at Valley High School.

The seventh-ranked Blue Devils, one of only four top-10 teams to reach the Sweet Sixteen, will meet unranked Russell (28-12) at 1 p.m.

The winner will advance to face either No. 25 Greenwood or unranked Allen Central on Saturday morning.

On the other hand, the draw doesn't seem so good.

Barring a staggering upset, No. 1 Assumption awaits the Saturday morning winner.

Semifinals begin Saturday at 3 p.m., with finals at 8.

Dale Grupe, in his 19th season as Henry Clay's coach, has led the Devils to 12 state tournaments and five of the last seven. Among this season's accomplishments were the 500th victory in program history, the 400th win under Grupe and a third straight regional championship.

At 23-16, Henry Clay did not hit the easy button to reach Valley. Ten of 16 losses came against out-of-state competition — teams from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio that either are, have been or, according to Grupe, are destined to be among the top 100 in the nation.

"I'm hoping it pays off," Grupe said. "If we can take care of business and hold our seed — meaning if we can get by the first two rounds, which we know will be tough — we should be the favorite to play Assumption in the semifinals. That's what we've worked for all year."

Assumption is 37-2, and 22-0 against in-state teams.

"They're a step above anybody we've played and I think they really are the real deal," Grupe said. "They're basically a college team. I mean, the fact that they go to Vegas and Nebraska to play all the top teams in the country, they're at a different level. So we're not going to sit here and say, 'Oh, we're going to beat them.'

"Unlike last year when we really felt we had a good game plan against Mercy and felt we matched up, Assumption is a little tough to match up. We would have to have a really special night to take them out in three games. Our goal is just to make them fight for it and take a game from them. We're not going to be unrealistic here. But at the same time we're not going to back down from them because we know, at times this year, we've played their level of volleyball. It's just we've never been able to sustain it for a whole match."

His players are approaching the tourney with determination worthy of superheroes.

Henry Clay typically applies a Disney theme to each team, just for fun.

Last summer, though, the popularity of The Avengers led to a superhero theme.

Sophomore setter Lynsey Short also is known as Captain America.

Senior libero Natsuki Yamawaki is also known as Spiderman.

The superheroes are all for one and one for all.

"I think we always play well together," said Emily McLendon, a senior middle blocker who also goes by Thor. "We have a connection that I don't think has been here the past couple years. We all get along really well and always can count on each other to do our job."

The Evil Empire competition had Henry Clay losing 15 of 19 matches entering the post-season. The Devils are 4-0 since, right back in the post-season mix.

"We just always strive for excellence," McLendon said. "It's been our goal and we've achieved it the past couple years, so we tried this year and it worked.

"We're ready to go. Keep pushing. Keep working hard."

Spoken like a superhero.

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