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Sunday, October 22, 2017

9th Region Volleyball Preview

Bluebirds Face Dixie Heights in 9th Quarterfinals

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands sophomore Audrey Graves (8) and the team come take the 36th District volleyball championship trophy Thursday. Highlands takes on Dixie Heights in the 9th Region Quarterfinals on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Holmes.
Once a major goal is accomplished, teams take a day or so to celebrate it. Then it is time to move on to the next order of business.

The accomplishment of 36th District champions for the Highlands Bluebirds volleyball team (24-10 overall) ranked high on the preseason priority list. Highlands beat Newport Central Catholic, 3-1 (25-17, 22-25, 28-26, 25-13) for its first district title since 2012. That also marked just the third time in 27 meetings that the Bluebirds beat the Thoroughbreds since 2005 including two out of three times this year. But Head Coach Katelyn Sallee said the championship meant something bigger in the grand scheme of things.

"Our main goal this whole year has been to go further in the region (tournament)," Sallee said. "We knew the way to get a better opportunity to do that was to take care of the district. We didn't want to make the district championship game about anything other than getting a number one seed. We didn't want to make it about an emotional night against NC. We didn't want to make it about a rivalry. With that being said, we're continuing to prepare for the same goal and I think we're going to get pretty level-headed about it."

Highlands will have the opportunity to win its first region game since 2010 Monday at Holmes in the 9th Region quarterfinals at 6:30 pm. against the Dixie Heights Colonels (20-8). The Bluebirds have lost in the first round of the tournament in each of the past five years in the current 9th Region alignment.

Once the district tournaments ended, Highlands knew it would face Dixie Heights, Beechwood or Cooper. The Bluebirds went 1-4 against those three teams and 3-6 against the entire 9th Region field. Outside NewCath, the one win came Sept. 23 against Dixie Heights, 2-0 (25-20, 25-20) in the Cake Classic championship game. Highlands lost to Dixie Heights, 3-0 (25-21, 25-21, 25-18) in Fort Thomas on Aug. 29 in Fort Thomas, but a few key players did not play in that game.

Dixie Heights Head Coach Matt Long has been there for a few seasons. The Lady Colonels are led by sophomore outside hitter Stephanie Coyle. Dixie Heights has one senior and four juniors on the team.

"They've got a lot of talent. I think they have some big offensive threats," Sallee said. "They have a lot of size. But I think we match up really well against them. It's going to be a battle. They're going to want it. We're going to want it. I think it'll be a really good match."

Highlands has played well together all season. It starts with solid serving. The Bluebirds saw several players dig up double-digit balls in the win over NewCath led by senior libero Gracie Schweitzer and junior Olivia Gessner.

Once the first hits find their way to sophomore setter Audrey Graves, great things have been happening. Highlands has seen a number of hitters put down kills such as sophomores Casey Dunn, Ava Hockney, junior Margot Seidel and seniors Maddie McCoy and Joy Kappesser. A number of players have picked things up in the blocking department now that senior Mary Claire Redden is out for the season with an injury.

One thing Highlands does not want to do is beat itself like it did in the second game against NewCath. Some hits went into the net or out of bounds and some of the sets were off the mark.

"I definitely think against NCC, we lost a little bit of focus in the second game," Graves said. "It's hard to be aggressive. and smart at the same time. We need to be in the mindset that it's okay to mess up and move on to the next play."

But that has not been an issue for Highlands most of the season. The Bluebirds put the Thoroughbreds away in the fourth game after winning a tight third game.

 "It's always something we've said, but it's never been executed as well as it has this year," Sallee said. "I think it takes a lot of maturity to actually believe that. Not just to say next ball, but to forget what happened and move on, stay focused, stay aggressive and continue to play our style of volleyball."

The winner plays Wednesday against either Notre Dame (26-9) or Cooper (25-9). That game starts at 6:30 p.m. back at Holmes.

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