DeLong returning to Highlands volleyball

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Jim DeLong admits there was no reason to leave Cincinnati (Ohio) Wyoming.

It just came down to proximity. DeLong is a retired United States Post Office letter carrier and lives in Fort Thomas. He graduated from Highlands in 1976 and his kids did the same. The 64-year-old could have applied for the Highlands job last year, but did not.

“I knew that Wyoming team was one of the best I’d had and I just wasn’t ready to make that move. We had a first team all-state and some all-city players returning,” DeLong said. “But then the job came open again this year. I took that as a sign. I probably have about anywhere between seven and 10 years left in me coaching. I thought that I would come back and have a 2.3-mile commute to school as opposed to close to an 18.5-mile drive to school.”

DeLong has been a head coach for 26 years. After graduating from Highlands, DeLong joined a fraternity at Northern Kentucky University and played on an intramural travel team. He refereed high school games for years. Then in 1996, Beechwood lost its coach and the players asked him to be their coach.

DeLong spent four seasons at Beechwood then three seasons at Highlands between 2000 to 2002. The 2002 team finished 26-8 overall winning the old 20th District Tournament crown before losing 2-0 (15-9, 15-13) to Beechwood in the old 5th Region quarterfinals.

DeLong then coached Oak Hills (Ohio) for 11 years before spending the last eight at Wyoming starting in 2015. His overall record is 493-227 including a 175-32 mark at Wyoming with Cincinnati Hills League outright championships in all eight seasons.

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DeLong takes over a Highlands team that finished 19-14 overall and won a sixth straight 36th District championship before losing to Covington Holy Cross, 3-0 (25-13, 25-19, 25-23) in the 9th Region quarterfinals at Ryle. Interim head coach Brooke Meier guided the Bluebirds in the postseason after head coach Michelle Woods and top assistant Kat Sickinger resigned with less than a week left in the regular season. Four from that team graduate in opposite hitter Carly Cramer, setter Kenzi Vennefron, middle hitter Emma Daly and outside hitter Bailey Houston.

“It just means we’re getting a person who is well-versed that has been through a whole lot, has had a lot of success in his career and just brings that stability that we’re looking for after the turmoil we had this past year,” said Wes Caldwell, Highlands Director of Athletics. “It’s just getting back to the basics and getting us back on that championship-winning path.”

Unlike the start of 2022 after nine seniors graduated from the 2021 team, Highlands returns eight players that played in at least 21 varsity games last year. That includes sophomore middle hitter Sydney Schomaker, junior outside hitters Rachel Ossege and Annemarie Sempier, who recorded 173, 168 and 106 kills respectively last year.

The Bluebirds also return sophomore setter Ella Cox, who finished with 311 assists and several defensive specialists in juniors Brynn Draper, Annie Ellison along with freshmen Hayden Gessner and Cayden McIntosh. Ellison led Highlands with 397 digs last year and Draper finished second with 39 aces. Highlands has played a 5-1 (hitter-setter) offense for the most part over the years.

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DeLong just met with the team last week. He is in the process of assembling a staff including reaching out to some of the assistants off last year’s staff.

“Just coming in this year, I’m trying to temper my expectations because I don’t know all the kids that well,” DeLong said. “But I know that we will play hard. It’s always been a trademark of my teams.”

Gessner said she’s heard of DeLong. Gessner has played on the Northern Kentucky Junior Volleyball club where he coaches.

“It will be nice to see his point of view and his coaching,” Gessner said. “I think it will be easier to connect this year with the coach knowing that we can start with faster plays.”

Highlands finished 173-99 in eight seasons under Katelyn Sallee, who DeLong coached in club volleyball, from 2014 to 2021. The Bluebirds won 25 or more games four of those past five years and made it to the 9th Region semifinals defeating Dixie Heights in 2017 and 2019.

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