Highlands and Newport Central Catholic have been battling for district and even region championships for a number of years and this season expects to be no different.
The rivalry has been about runs over the past 18 years. The Bluebirds have won 11 out of the last 12 meetings and six consecutive district championships dating back to 2017. Before that, the Thoroughbreds won 24-of-25 in the series and 11 district championships from 2005-2017.
Dayton, Bellevue and Newport combined to go 26-61 last season as they look to progress headed into 2023.
Jim DeLong returns for his second stint after leading the Bluebirds from 2000-02. DeLong comes into an ideal situation with seven players returning with varsity experience that played in at least 21 games last season. The Bluebirds graduated four players from the 19-14 squad that lost to Holy Cross in the 9th Region Quarterfinals.
DeLong said he likes the depth at setter and the ball control with the libero and defensive specialist positions. Senior Annie Ellison returns at libero after leading the Bluebirds with 397 digs last year. Sophomore Hayden Gessner and senior Brynn Draper return at defensive specialist after recording 193 and 107 digs, respectively. Draper and Gessner finished second and third on the team with 39 and 37 aces, respectively.
The Bluebirds had their struggles against power hitters last season. While great hitters put down their fair share of kills, Ellison understands how much keeping balls in play makes a difference in games.
“You pretty much just need to be determined to get it. You can’t be scared,” Ellison said. “If you’re scared, obviously you’re not going to get a touch. You have to have hope in yourself, your team and work hard.”
The top Highlands setter with 451 assists last year in Kenzi Vennefron graduated. But junior Ella Cox returns after recording 311. DeLong also said sophomore Ava Muzumdar could set a number of balls this year.
“Our energy is great and I think we have a really good blend of experience and new kids,” DeLong said. “It is really helping with our younger kids. Our effort has been fantastic. Our competitiveness in practice has been fantastic.”
Highlands graduated its top two hitters in Emma Daly and Bailey Houston along with Carly Cramer, but a number return with experience. Junior outside hitter Sydney Schomaker and senior outside and middle hitter Rachel Ossege return after recording 173 and 168 kills, respectively. Ossege led Highlands with 52 blocks last year.
DeLong expects two 5-foot-10 players in senior Maggie Carnohan and junior Lyla Bottom to step in as middle blockers. He especially said to keep an eye on eighth grade opposite hitter Alexis Steinhauser.
Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds
With one season over .500 in the last five, NewCath hopes to turn the corner this year with the return of a lot of talented players.
It starts with the versatile senior Kori Reckers. Reckers had 186 kills, 323 digs, 17 blocks and had team-highs of 69 aces and 409 assists.
Head coach Angie Reckers said she likes the versatility of the team. They’ve been experimenting with an unconventional offense in the preseason.
“Some of them are playing different positions than what they did before in high school or in club ball because that’s what we need now,” Angie Reckers said. “We’ve had really good conversations about stepping in, learning some new responsibilities and being able to contribute to the team in a different way than what they have in the past and I’m really excited with what they’ve shown me.”
NewCath has two other seniors in defensive specialist/hitters Emma Cleves and Lucy Simons. A big junior class also returns with experience in hitters Jaylee Brannen, Katelyn Brannen, Elena Henderson, Madison Wolf and Reese McCloskey along with defensive specialist Elise Fowler. McCloskey led NewCath with 19 blocks last year. Junior Vivi Fassler hopes to contribute at setter and defensive specialist.
NewCath graduated hitter Annika Obert and libero Camryn Kohrs from last year’s team that finished 15-18. Junior Caroline Eaglin also decided to focus on basketball after leading the Thoroughbreds with 214 kills last year. Three candidates to fill the libero role are sophomore Paytin Reckers, Piperlyn Kramer and freshman Jordyn Reckers. Kramer could also play outside hitter.
“I think it’s great that we have lot of returning players,” Kori Reckers said. “But we also have a lot of newer strength that can help us.”
Coach Reckers said the mental part of the game has been a focus in the offseason. She said the Thoroughbreds have been hurt by self-doubt when things don’t go their way in recent years. But Coach Reckers said the book Relentless by Tim Grover, who has worked with a lot of professional athletes on the mental toughness game and the team is hoping to put some of those lessons into practice and games.
Barbie Lukens enters the second year of her second tenure leading the Devils. They graduated one senior in the versatile Gabe Leger.
Senior all-conference setter Haylee Reynolds returns to run either a 6-2 or 5-1 offense this year. Her senior sister Kierston Reynolds returns at libero after recording a team-high 111 digs last year. Sophomore middle hitter Ella Boyers is back after missing all last year with a back injury and junior Kee Smith comes back after an all-conference year at that spot, leading Dayton with 55 blocks.
Three outside hitters in seniors Abby Halfhill, Jersie McIntosh and junior Lillie Lewis come back along with junior defensive specialist McKenzie Sullivan, sophomore defensive specialist Hailey Leger and sophomore setter Emily Hall. Halfhill led Dayton with 83 kills last year.
“My girls are scrappy and full of excitement,” Lukens said. “They strive for improvement and to attempt – through pure efforts – to fill the gaps for a team that has no club players. We play much bigger than we are. Serving will be a huge focus to keep us from giving away points to our opponents.”
Stephanie Atkins enters her sixth season coaching Newport coming off an 8-21 season.
Newport returns three starters after graduating five seniors from last year. They are junior all-around player Rayona Lindsey, junior setter/middle blocker Andora Riley and senior Division II All-Northern Kentucky Athletic Conference all-around player DeAyjah White. White had 99 kills, 31 blocks, 179 assists and 219 digs last year.
Atkins said the Wildcats are young after that, including some seniors that played for the first time last year. While they may not possess the experience like the others do in the district, Atkins said the girls come to practice striving to improve daily.
“They just really enjoy being there,” Atkins said. “They get along well and try hard. It makes practice a lot easier. They’re willing to learn. It makes it a lot more stress-free.”
The Tigers enter the second season under head coach Lauren Maines, a 2015 Highlands graduate, coming off a 7-19 season last year.
Bellevue graduated three seniors off that team in Emma Laurenti along with Isabella Wittrock and Greer Hayes.
Maines listed juniors Paulina Long and Jayda Dowell as players to watch this fall. Dowell had a team-high 157 assists and Long led the Tigers with 101 kills and 22 blocks last year.
“Through my time at Highlands, I’ve learned the difference between being a mediocre player versus a player who is willing to go all out not only for myself but for my team,” Maines said. “This season, I’m working on teaching the importance of having a positive mindset, communicating together, and putting in work for more effective results. I want the girls to understand their position along with everyone else’s and how they can dominate if they work hard and push through as one.”