One look from the sidelines Monday showed how much the growth of the volleyball program has meant to the Paintsville Tigers community.
The stands were mostly filled as the Tigers took on the Notre Dame Pandas in the first round of the state volleyball tournament. Dawn Sparks-Kinner is a huge reason for putting Paintsville volleyball on the map.
Kinner graduated from Campbell County in 2000 after helping the Camels reach the state semifinals as a junior in 1998. She started playing volleyball at the age of 12.
Kinner took her talents to Georgetown College and earned Mid-South All-Conference honors from 2001 to 2003. Kinner met her husband Jason, a 2000 Paintsville alumnus, at Georgetown College and the two ultimately moved back to Paintsville to teach.
Sparks took over the Paintsville volleyball program in 2010 and the team improved from a 10-win season in 2009 to 19-16 her first year.
The school’s volleyball program was established in 1999.
“That first year was a lot of work just having the girls understand the type of volleyball I was used to playing,” Kinner said. “That just shows you how far behind they were in having the sport.”
The Tigers have gone 343-93 in her 13 seasons with 11 straight 57th District championships and four 15th Region titles. Paintsville also won the All “A” State Tournament this year for the first time, becoming just the second public school to win the tournament that began in 2009. They defeated Holy Cross in the finals.
“This a record-breaking year for our program,” Kinner said. “I think it’s great for our region as a whole.”
Paintsville finished a school-record 38-3 following the 3-0 loss (25-21, 25-11, 25-21) to nine-time state champion Notre Dame on Monday in front of not only Paintsville fans, but players and coaches from throughout the region. The Tigers are still searching for the first state tournament win in program history but senior middle blocker Blair Ratliff could not say enough about how the Tigers have made progress.
“It means everything to me. I think Coach Kinner’s done wonders with this program, especially since the last time we went to state,” Ratliff said. “When we went two years ago, we played Russell. It ended in three and that team wasn’t near as good as the one we faced (Monday). We’ve closed the gap. I can see it growing and earning a state championship in the near future.”
Paintsville graduates five seniors from the team. Another one is setter Bella Blackburn.
“I’ve just enjoyed all the memories and all of their coaching over the year. My freshman year, we started out pretty rocky,” Blackburn said. “We lost in the regional tournament and by my sophomore year, we were able to snatch the regional tournament and go back to state. Last year, I was out with an injury and I got to see a lot of what goes on the sidelines. It showed me more to the game than just playing and I think that’s helped us this year.”
The Tigers finished 33-5 in 2017 and 35-4 in 2018 led by outside hitter Megan Taylor who went on to play at Marshall University. Paintsville won its first two 15th Region championships those two years, and won another in 2020.
The 40-year-old Kinner has youth programs going for Paintsville. She even coaches the middle school teams.
“That’s where it starts with these younger kids getting the fundamentals down and watching them grow through our program,” Kinner said. “It’s just something I’m extremely proud of from Kindergarten through our seniors here. I can’t say enough about the buy-in not only that our school has, but the community as a whole.”
Kinner said she’s seeing more players in club volleyball. She’s the club director for the East Kentucky Junior Volleyball team that starts play in December.
“It was important for us to see that our region can compete with teams at this level,” Kinner said. “We have a lot of girls that are starting to play club volleyball. I think that’s big for our girls in the offseason putting in that work that you see with the Notre Dames and the (Louisville) Assumptions.”
Kinner teaches physical education and is the yearbook coordinator for Paintsville. She is also an assistant girls basketball coach, a BETA Club sponsor, Site-Based Decision-Making Council vice chair, field day sponsor, and helps the boys basketball booster club, among other roles at the school.
“My biggest achievement is just being a support system for the kids here,” Kinner said. “I run a lot of things. Anywhere that they need me, I help out so these kids have a great experience in high school and middle school.”
Kinner said she plans to stay in Paintsville despite her Northern Kentucky roots. Kinner has an eighth grade daughter, Kylie, who plays volleyball and basketball, and son Jase, a sophomore on the basketball team.
“We’ve had opportunities to leave and go take what we’ve done and build other programs. I appreciate those people for reaching out. But Paintsville’s home for me. We have three kids here in the school system and they’re athletic. It’s a very special place.”
Her sister Nicki Whitford and niece Faith, a freshman volleyball and softball player at Campbell County, consistently come support the Tigers. They attended the game Monday.
Faith Whitford saw action in five games this year for the 10-16 Camels volleyball team. She she made her debut for the Camels softball team this past spring going 2-1 with a save as a pitcher.
“Faith is an outstanding athlete,” Kinner said. “My advice to her is just to keep working. Hard work is going to pay off. When you’re given that opportunity, you go out there and you take it. You perform to the best of your ability. I’m really excited to follow her and watch her because I know the type of player that she is and what she can grow into.”
The Kinners have some things to look forward to during basketball. Kylie Kinner drilled 12 three-pointers for the Tigers in a 57-24 home win over East Ridge last year.