34th District volleyball preview: St. Henry returns loaded team

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St. Henry has won the 34th District in the 12 of 13 years the way it’s currently aligned and with what the Crusaders have returning, 13 out of 14 will not be a stretch by any imagination.

But with Dixie Heights returning all but one player and Ludlow and Villa Madonna coming off 20-win seasons in 2022, don’t expect a walk in the park for the Crusaders in the 34th District.

St. Henry (25-8 in 2022)

Six returning seniors highlight at St. Henry squad coming off 25 wins and a region final appearance in 2022. As sophomores, they were state champions and hope to reach the pinnacle once again in their last go-round. Alivia Skidmore is the returning leader in kills, the Western Kentucky University commit with 394 in her junior season.

“She is a six-rotation player and an all-around stand out volleyball player,” Crusaders coach Maureen Kaiser said.

Ball State commit Elizabeth Tabeling led the team in digs with 455 and serve passes to target.

“She never lets a ball hit the floor without her body on the floor,” Kaiser said.

Anna Guard is a middle hitter committed to Eastern Michigan and tallied 256 kills.

“Anna is extremely athletic with a huge vertical, excellent block and heavy arm,” Kaiser said.

Macy Lentz, Audrey Leonhard and Mia Ryan will all play valuable roles.

“Macy Lentz is a very versatile player that runs the floor extremely well. She is a leader and aggressive player. Audrey Leonhard will add to the setting position while senior Mia Ryan will contribute to front row play on the right side,” Kaiser said.

On top of the six seniors, Louisville Mercy transfer Emily Helmers, Elizabeth Casey and Reese McMahon round out the roster in the defensive category.

With all the talent returning, the Crusaders will certainly challenge themselves on the schedule. They’ll travel to Tampa for the Nike Challenge, look to win the All “A” and play in the Louisville Volleyball Invitational Tournament. September 22 is also a date to circle with a rematch of the 9th Region championship game against Notre Dame.

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Dixie Heights (15-10 in 2022)

The lone team to claim a 34th District title outside of St. Henry was the Colonels in 2020, with a team that returns eight of their top nine they hope to do the same again in 2023.

The one departure is a big one, Maia Long who took her talents to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Long led the team in kills with 419, was second in blocks (22), third in digs (216) and fourth in aces (36).

Senior outside hitter Maggie Best will be a six-rotation player and is committed to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. Best had 292 kills last season and has over 500 for her career.

“At six-feet, Maggie can do it all,” Colonels coach Julie Kelly said.

Senior libero Christen Tarter recently committed to Ohio Dominican and has over 700 career digs.

“One of the best liberos in the region,” Kelly said. “We’ve got our sights set on the 1,000 dig mark.”

Those two have been vital members of the team for years, sophomore setter Riley Byrne will also play a valuable role. Byrne led the team with 431 assists last season.

“Riley has really nice hands and a high volleyball IQ,” Kelly said.

Dixie Heights last 9th Region tournament win came in 2018 and they hope to change those fortunes this season. Kelly feels the strength of the team will be the cohesiveness and competitiveness.

“This is the first season in a long time where we will have a majority of varsity starters return. We are seamlessly picking up from where we left off last season,” Kelly said.

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The 2022 team was one of 14 Kentucky schools to receive the 2023 USMC/AVCA Team Academic Award for high school volleyball. All varsity players received KHSAA Academic All-State awards for the 2022 season.

Ludlow (22-12 in 2022)

Ludlow’s 22 wins in 2022 were its most since 2014, when they also won 22 games. Now they return eight of their top nine from a season ago.

The lone departure is Mylee Garrett, who led the team in assists (269) and digs (201) in 2022. Top returnees include seniors Olivia King, Mattalynn Tackett, Lilian Denhert, Brooklynn Dixon and junior Addison Pegg. King led the team in kills (112), Tackett was second in aces (53), Denhert was the team leader in blocks (34), Dixon was third in kills (84) and Pegg led the team in aces (54).

Longtime coach Jodi Schmidt says the team’s goals are to improve their seed in the district, shoot for a conference championship and keep improving and working as a team.

“The strength will be the amount of experience returning,” Schmidt said. “I’m excited about their desire to be in the gym working to improve their game.”

Ludlow will host their annual Ludlow Classic the opening week of the season. They’ve expanded the field to 14 teams.

Villa Madonna (22-7 in 2022)

Villa Madonna also posted a milestone season in 2022 with 22 wins, their most since 2010.

They return nine of 12 from the varsity roster a season ago highlighted by junior Maya Kondik, the Player of the Year in Division III. Kondik was third on the team in kills and led the Vikings in blocks. Senior Jocelyn Demler will provide an all around game as a six-position player, second on the team in kills and digs last season. Senior Maddie Mitchell looks to pace the team in aces and serves as a strong defensive player, Mitchell had 26 aces last season and junior Catherine Gifford will be one of the setters and is a strong server and hitter. Gifford led the team with 291 assists in 2022.

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“This team is enthusiastic and ready for another season. We will be short on height but our veteran players will adapt,” Vikings coach Sandi Kitchen said.

Villa Madonna opens the season with St. Henry on Aug. 15, a good gauge against a district opponent who will also be one of the top teams in the region and state. They open up the 9th Region All “A” tournament with Beechwood on Aug. 30.

The height disadvantage they’ll face at times will be a struggle with frontline defense, but Kitchen hopes the back row will adapt and adjust to the challenge. The team collected 262 aces last season, good for nine a game and should be another strength of the team this season.

Lloyd Memorial (6-19 in 2022)

The Juggernauts look to get back over .500 for the first time since 2019. They do return the majority of their production from 2022, including Izabel Berger and Brooklyn Auclerc, the two combining for 213 kills last season.

Chandler Merritt and Mya Holden bolster the front line of defense with the two combining for 26 blocks last season while Sierra McCoin and Makayla Perkins are the setters, McCoin with 295 assists in 2022, Perkins with 103. Berger had 28 aces, Auclerc and Lorelei Tomlinson with 23 each.

Lloyd Memorial opens their season on Aug. 15 with Bellevue in the Ludlow Classic.

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