LOUISVILLE — Notre Dame Coach Buck McCoart thought his team looked a little lethargic in its KHSAA State Volleyball Tournament quarterfinal win over Sacred Heart on Saturday morning. But when nighttime rolled around and it was time to face Paul Laurence Dunbar in the semifinals, it was clear that the Pandas were wide awake.
The fourth-ranked Panthers got big performances from libero Morgan Hentz and middle blocker Abby Thelen in defeating the Bulldogs in three sets, 25-10, 25-10 and 25-14.
"Our kids didn't really play to our potential this morning," McCoart said. "It might have been the 10 a.m. start. We weren't our usual selves, but we bounced back tonight. We knew Dunbar was a good team, and we usually are focused and get up for the big games."
Dunbar had shown a knack for coming up with key points when it needed during its wins in the first two rounds, but the Pandas dominated from the outset and never let the Bulldogs get in the flow of the match.
The Bulldogs had been paced all season by their outstanding tandem of Olivia Canales and Leah Edmond, but it was the Notre Dame duo of Hentz and Thelen who took over the match.
Hentz, one of the nation's top juniors who is being recruited by powerhouses such as Penn State and Stanford, had 12 kills and eight digs while Thelen, a senior, had 13 digs. Madison Salkowski, a 6-foot junior middle blocker, added 10 kills.
"Morgan was her usual, and Abby was her usual," McCoart said. "They've been carrying us all year. But it was also nice to look at the stat sheet and see what a big contribution Madison made to our offense as well."
After Notre Dame jumped ahead 9-1 in the second set, Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan called a timeout to try and get her team settled in, but the Pandas just kept pouring it on.
The Bulldogs showed some fight in the third set, jumping out to a 3-1 lead. But the momentum was short-lived, as Notre Dame ripped off six consecutive points to regain control. Dunbar would get to within 15-10 before the Pandas went on another run to close out the match.
"They're a very good team and very deserving of being in the state championship," Morgan said. "They just took us out of our game and out of what we wanted to do. What had been working all year for us didn't work at all tonight."
Notre Dame (32-5) will face Mercy (40-1) in Sunday's 2 p.m. championship game. The Pandas, who lost to Assumption in last year's state finals, are hoping to close the deal this time.
"We've been trying to stay in the moment, but honestly this is something we've been focused on all year," McCoart said. "This is my first year here, so I wasn't around for last year's (loss to Assumption). But I know how badly these girls want it, and hopefully I can help get them there."
Paced by Canales and Edmond, the Bulldogs reached the semis with a 25-23, 25-18, 25-20 win over Owensboro Catholic earlier Saturday.
The 6-1 Edmond, a junior who has committed to Kentucky, had 17 kills and 12 digs. Canales, a 6-1 senior headed to Texas Christian, had 12 kills while senior middle hitter Rachel Brown added 10.
The Bulldogs (29-11) will lose Canales and four other valuable seniors from this year's squad, but with Edmond returning, Morgan is hoping this year's state tournament appearance can be a springboard.
"We're going to lose a lot of leadership and there's some big shoes that have to be filled," Morgan said. "But I couldn't be prouder of this team for the run we had in the postseason and to have represented the city of Lexington in the state semifinals."