The early years of Kentucky high school volleyball were dominated by Northern Kentucky teams.
Notre Dame won the first state tournament in 1979. The next year, the title went to Villa Madonna. The year after that, St. Henry won.
Notre Dame returned to claim the title three years in a row, 1982-1984, and picked up additional titles in 1987, 1989, 1991, and 1994.
After the early years of Northern Kentucky dominance, the state’s championship volleyball power shifted to Louisville. Assumption, Mercy, or Sacred Heart would claim every state title from 1995 through 2019.
But in 2020, Notre Dame won it all again. Last year, St. Henry finished on top.
Is a new era of Northern Kentucky dominance upon us?
That is to be determined but what is certain is that Notre Dame and St. Henry have dominated local volleyball for years.
Others are hoping to knock on the door.
Notre Dame Pandas
Notre Dame finished 30-9 last year, falling to St. Henry in the 9th Region title game.
In the off-season, the administration promoted Leslie Litmer to head coach and Jenna Leistner to associate head coach.
Litmer said that this season, the Pandas have size on offense and quickness on defense. Seniors Kamden Schrand, a University of Louisville commit, and Kayla Hostetler, an Eastern Michigan University commit, lead the way as defensive specialists. Schrand had team-highs with 493 digs and 81 aces. Hostetler recorded 252 digs.
Seniors Ava Jacobs and Jada Kramer could make an impact there as well. Sophomore Ella Goetz could contribute at outside hitter or defensive specialist.
The Pandas have solid hitters like University of North Carolina commit Sydney Nolan, who led Notre Dame with 427 kills and 85 blocks last year.
Sophomore Riley McCloskey and freshman Audrey Dyas hope to make huge impacts as middle blockers. Senior Peyton Mast hopes to make an impact at right side hitter and sophomore Ava Tilden hopes to contribute as an outside hitter.
Notre Dame starts the season Aug. 15 at Boone County. Game time is 7 p.m.
St. Henry Crusaders
The defending state champions are led by Maureen Kaiser who enters her 32nd season as head coach. The team finished 36-8 last season.
This year, juniors look to step up, including senior middle hitter Alivia Skidmore and libero Elizabeth Tabeling. Senior Josie Schroder, a Wheeling University (NCAA Division II) commit, returns at middle hitter.
“My core group of talent is coming from the juniors who played a role on the squad last year,” Kaiser said. “We’re excited. We’re anxious. We can only move forward coming off a state title. I have a lot of young excitement.”
Junior middle hitter Anna Guard is also looking to contribute to the Crusader offense along with senior right-side hitter Samantha Lewis. Junior Macy Lentz transferred from Notre Dame and could give the Crusaders an option at outside hitter or setter.
Kaiser said Lentz played with a number of the St. Henry juniors during club season.
Junior Audrey Leonhard could also step into the setter role. Sophomore Lizzie Casey could contribute at defensive specialist.
St. Henry opens the season Aug. 15 at Holmes at 7 p.m. Kaiser said the Crusaders will not partake in the All “A” Tournament this year. Instead, they received an invititation to Tampa, Florida to play in the Nike Tournament over Labor Day weekend.
Ryle Lady Raiders
Tasha Lovins enters her 21st season coaching the Lady Raiders. Ryle is coming off a 28-9 season and a second straight 33rd District Tournament crown.
Lovins staff is made of former players including 2012 graduate Alena Downs and 2017 graduate Allie Stinson, who is the junior varsity coach. Hayley Bush is also on staff this year after competing at Purdue University.
Six seniors graduated from last year’s team including outside hitter Lucy Trump. Trump took her talents to the University of Notre Dame.
Ryle welcomes back four returning starters in juniors libero/defensive specialist/setter Alexis Woolf, hitter Abby Lester, outside hitter/setter Kiana Dinn and third-year starting senior setter Maddie Clark.
Dinn recently earned most valuable player honors in a camp at the University of Cincinnati. Dinn had 237 kills and 477 assists last year and Clark recorded 426 assists last year. Woolf led Ryle with 46 aces last year.
“We are very versatile,” Lovins said. “I may not have true middles. We have a lot of options going into this (season) so we’ve been working on several different line-ups that seem to be working well for us.”
Two big contributors return in sophomore hitter Olivia Karlosky and freshman hitter/setter Morgan Heater. Senior Anna Hayden at middle blocker/right side hitter saw limited action last year.
Lovins said junior middle blockers Merisa Workman and Jesse Probst along with sophomore outside hitter Rebecca Kramer are also looking to contribute.
Ryle opens the season Aug. 16 at Lexington Dunbar. Game time is 7 p.m.
Cooper Lady Jaguars
Cooper finished last year at 22-12. Head coach Michelle Isaac, the only head coach in the 15-year history of the program, returns.
Cooper saw seven seniors graduate from last year’s team but have experienced varsity players returning.
Senior libero Chloe Fortner holds the school record for most career digs with 1,464. She led Cooper with 49 aces last year.
“We spend a lot of time working on the defense,” Isaac said. “We do ‘serve, receive’ for almost 45 minutes to an hour of practice just because it’s so important. I think this year the key to our success is going to be our scrappy-ness. They’re enthusiastic. They like each other and they’ll go get a ball. It’s a different look than I’ve had in the last couple years.
Junior Sadie Smith returns for her third season as the starting setter. Smith is second in program history with 1,554 career assists.
Senior middle/opposite hitter Holland Morris returns after recording 222 kills last year and senior middle blocker Rylie Depue had 201 kills and 48 blocks. Other options are junior middle blocker Abby Kniffin and all-around sophomore Audrey Schilling.
Cooper opens the season Aug. 16 at Simon Kenton. Game time is 7 p.m.
Holy Cross Indians
Holy Cross finished last season at 23-14. This year, the Indians return Maya Hunt and Julia Hunt, standout sisters from last year’s squad.
Maya Hunt, a senior right-side hitter, is committed to play at Marshall University. Junior Julia Hunt has basketball scholarship offers from Western Kentucky, Xavier, and Buffalo.
Their mother, Jill Hunt, is head coach at Holy Cross.
“They are my biggest contributors,” Jill Hunt said. “Julia is obviously super talented in what she does and Maya’s setting is very important. Just what she brings to the floor as a leader and knowing when to tip, when to set and what to do, she was actually second on the team in kills (with 127) last year and she didn’t even hit.”
The Indians also return senior libero Natalie Bessler, and juniors Camille Lowe and Luci Wurtz.
“Our biggest thing is we tended to break down in ball control,” Jill Hunt said. “If our passing was on and we could run a system, we were really good. We had some nice hitter outside of (Julia). But you knew the ball was going to her. It’s harder when you have fewer options. I think this year, we have more ball control players. I have a few more hitters that can bring a bit of power. It will be nice to have other options as well.”
Holy Cross opens the season Aug. 16 at home against Newport Central Catholic. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Conner Lady Cougars
The Lady Cougars improved from 5-11 in 2020 to 19-6 last year. Head Coach Doug Rabe saw five players graduate from that team but Conner returns a lot of varsity experience from last year. Those returning players include junior Anna Hamilton, sophomore Bailey Morris, junior Maddie Leiprecht, and senior Ryan Stewart.
The two leaders in assists from last year return. Senior setter Bri Stone had 280 and junior Aubrey Depenbrock had 274.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere,” Rabe said. “The girls are excited again to play this year. We play a bunch of music in timeouts at home games winning or losing. It doesn’t matter. Win, lose or draw, we’re going to enjoy it. Everyone feels like they’re being supported.”
Others returning are junior Peyton Walker and senior Lilly Hamburg.
Hamburg had a team-high 176 kills last year. Walker gives Conner another option at middle blocker.
Two junior outside hitters who could add to the offense are McKenzie Deatherage and Carly Nehus. Senior Katie Hendrix also gives Conner an option on the right side.
Michelle Woods comes over from Cincinnati McNicholas, taking over a Highlands program that coming off a 27-8 season and a fifth consecutive 36th District Tournament crown.
But the Bluebirds graduated nine seniors off that squad. Only senior middle blocker Emma Daly and senior setter Kenzi Vennefron return after seeing action in at least 31 games last year.
“We kind of approached it obviously coming in hot in the summer,” Woods said. “We hit open gyms pretty heavy. We were in the gym a couple times a week. The first couple days of practice, the girls have really stepped up and kind of adapted to the culture that (assistant coach) Kat (Sickinger) and I are trying to bring. Kat and I like to run a high-intensity program. They are all taking a role. They’re all being open and coachable. We may not be the tallest and we may not have eight seniors and that’s fine. But I promise we’re going to hustle on the court and we’re going to communicate, play as a team and I think that’s going to help our success. We’re going to push the girls to be aggressive. They’re accepting the challenge so I don’t think we’ll have any issues there.”
Five others return with some varsity action: senior middle blocker Carly Cramer, senior outside/right side hitter Bailey Houston, junior outside/right side hitter/middle blocker Rachel Ossege and two defensive specialists in junior Annie Ellison and freshman Hayden Gessner.
Woods also listed two more sophomores who could play big roles this year: setter/right side hitter Ella Cox and outside hitter/middle blocker Sydney Schoemaker.
Highlands opens the season Aug. 15 against Lloyd Memorial. Game time is 7 p.m.
Dixie Heights Colonels
Julie Kelly, a 2001 Dixie Heights graduate and former player at the University of Alabama, enters her third season guiding the Colonels. Dixie Heights finished 12-14 last year.
Dixie returns three starters: senior outside hitter and Jacksonville State (Alabama) commit Maia Long, junior middle blocker Maggie Best, and junior libero Christen Tarter. Long had 349 kills and 31 blocks last year and Best had 188 kills and 27 blocks. Tarter led the Colonels with 188 digs and 36 aces.
“We’re hoping to get all the pieces to come together who can rally behind these three leaders,” Kelly said. “Not only are they amazing volleyball players. But they are great people. The chemistry is really good right now. There’s no negative energy right now. Everyone gets along.”
Dixie Heights opens the season Aug. 16 at Conner. Game time is 7:30 p.m.