They are best friends from childhood and graduated together from Notre Dame Academy in 2009, and now both have helped lead local volleyball teams to the Kentucky state tournament this year.
Notre Dame Associate Head Coach Jenna Leistner and Pandas have a 31-5 record and 9th Region crown this season. They play in Thursday’s second-round state tournament game against Whitley County.
Bree Velasquez saw her Bishop Brossart Mustangs win the 10th Region title and finish the season with a 27-14 record after falling in the state tournament’s opening round.
The 30-year olds met when they were three and ran around in social circles that included Notre Dame head coach Leslie Litmer. They watched their brothers, 2006 Covington Catholic graduate AJ Schreiver and 2007 CovCath alumnus Shane Popham, play baseball.
“We’re definitely in the positions we’re in now because of the other person,” Leistner said. “So at this point, it’s not even a friendship. Our two families are friends with each other. We’ve just been on the ride with each other all the way up until this point. It’s a great sisterhood to have.”
The pair started playing volleyball together in the fourth grade. Their mothers Cheryl Popham and Teresa Schreiver coached them in volleyball and softball.
“Teresa is like second mother to me and I would say my mom is a second mother to Jenna as well so we’ve bee intertwined in each other’s lives,” Velasquez said. “We’ve definitely been stuck with each other through thick and thin.”
As life progressed, their husbands, Derek Leistner and Omar Velasquez, came into their lives and the two served as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings. Now their 1-year-old sons Easton Velasquez and Kash Leistner attend a 1-year-old class together.
Jenna Leistner added her son’s name came from former University of Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel. Derek Leistner played football for UK for a year after graduating from Scott High in 2004.
“Those two are definitely sisters,” Omar Velasquez said of his wife and Leistner. “Whether they agree or disagree, they let each other know. But you can tell that the love is there. It’s been there for their whole lives. You can see that in their relationship.”
The two were part of Notre Dame teams that played in the state volleyball tournament in 2007 and 2008 before going off to college. Jenna Leistner played setter and Bree Velaquez played defensive specialist.
The 2007 Pandas lost in the state championship game to Louisville Assumption, and in 2008 Notre Dame was knocked out in the state semifinals by Louisville Mercy.
Jenna Leistner went on to play at Northern Kentucky University and Bree Velasquez played at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York where she met Omar and the two ultimately relocated back here.
Leistner and Velasquez coached togeher in 2016 and 2017 on former Notre Dame head coach Buck McCoart‘s staff.
When Notre Dame won its ninth state title in 2020, ending a 26-year run of championships claimed by Louisville programs, Velasquez said she was thrilled. St. Henry won the title in 2021, making it back-to-back titles for Northern Kentucky programs.
“Once you are a volleyball Panda, you have that love and that desire to see them succeed in the future,” Velasquez said. “I remember when I was there we wanted to get back to state and then we wanted to win state because we hadn’t won state since 1994. When we didn’t do it (as players), when I was coaching, we wanted to win state because we didn’t get to do it when we were there. I hope the Pandas can bring it home again this year.”
Velasquez just finished her fifth season coaching the Mustangs. She was Litmer’s junior varsity assistant during her time coaching at Notre Dame.
“I knew when she went to Brossart she was going to do great things,” Jenna Leistner said. “I knew it would take several years to get her system under their belt. But it’s not surprising at all that she’s had this much success.”
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has sent teams on the road to play opponents in the first round three years in a row. Velasquez admitted she’s not a fan of that.
“Since I have been to state twice as a student and as a coach, there’s nothing that can replicate that feeling when you’re all in the same location,” Velasquez said. “You’re watching the games before you and the games after you. You just feel that atmosphere. Obviously, I just didn’t feel it Monday night and we were three hours away and different circumstances. I do hope the shock of making it to state for the first time with a such a young team they’ll be like, ‘We’ve done this already. We’re not nervous. We’re not scared. We can handle ourselves and go out and get that first-round win for sure.”
Scouting Whitley County:
Notre Dame plays 13th Region champion Whitley County (25-14) at 5 p.m. Thursday at George Rogers Clark with a trip to the state semifinals on the line.
“We have a great culture at Notre Dame and the girls are very mature,” Jenna Leistner said. “That starts with our five seniors. The hard work starts every day with them. How we start Thursday night starts with them. We’re very fortunate to have them.”
Libero Kamden Schrand leads Notre Dame with 505 of the team’s 1,534 digs on the season and 78 of the team’s 258 aces. Two other defensive specialists, sophomore Julia Grace and senior Kayla Hostetler, have 237 and 220 digs, respectively.
“The first pass is definitely extremely important because if it’s not right to the target, you don’t have three options and the block knows exactly who you are going to,” said Jada Kramer, Notre Dame senior defensive specialist. “So the fact that we have that perfect first pass a lot of times allows us to use all three of our hitters and keep the blockers guessing. It’s definitely nice being on a team where you can trust all your teammates. You don’t second-guess your teammates. Everyone knows everyone is going to do her job to the best of her abilities.”
The two Notre Dame setters continue to set the ball all over the court. Sophomore Lauren Ott has 629 and freshman Lizzy Larkins 471 of the team’s 1,295 assists.
Notre Dame also has a tall lineup, including five who stand at six-feet or more.
“I think everyone can play (every position) so it’s easy if we get a problem to switch someone to a different position,” said Ava Erpenbeck, a junior middle and outside hitter. “Everyone can really execute well. Since everyone is so tall, I think it’s easy to hit over blocks. Everyone is a hopper so they can jump over blocks, too and we’re always looking for hits on the ball.”
Notre Dame and Whitley County do not have any common opponents. The Colonels beat 14th Region champion Wolfe County, 3-1 (19-25, 25-21, 27-25, 25-14) to make it to Thursday’s match-up.