You can never know who will be the NEXT BIG THING in any sport. High school sports in particular as there is usually a certain order that predetermines champions from challengers. The argument is usually a valid one when concerning Girls Sports as there is very little change in many team sport stories. The teams’ which have been champions are usually competitive year end and year out unless some change or cycle can alter that. A coaching change or a couple average freshman classes can force a shift in success.
This is never more previlant than in Kentucky High School Volleyball where, since it’s inclusion in the KHSAA (starting in 1979), there has ONLY been six different State Champions and the BIG THREE (Assumption, Sacred Heart and Mercy of Louisville) have been Nationally Ranked during much of that time. In fact, many of the past several years, the State Champion in Kentucky has been to National Champion according to the Ranking severices.
Now that’s being REALLY good.
So obviously the odds of winning the Region Championship in the 6th or 7th Region is pretty slim (if you are outside the private school spectrum) and if it does happen then it would be considered quite a surprise, but other Regions have also seen little change in the power structure of the sport.
For instance in the 5th Region since 2004, there has been only three different Region Champions (Central Hardin, Elizabethtown and Green County) and only a few times recently has a different team outside of the Big Three has a different team contended (Bethlehem 2014 and Bardstown 2016) in the Final. The power structure doesn’t look to change anytime soon as two of the three have great developmental squads.
Now we come to the 3rd Region where from 2004 to 2016 there has been only two different Region Champions (Apollo 6-times and Owensboro Catholic 7- times), but until just recently two different teams have shared custody of the Region Trophy.
Meade County wrestled the Title away from Owensboro Catholic in 2017 and then Breckinridge County did the same from Apollo in 2018.
Which brings us to the present and why the town of Harned might be in the drivers seat to be a repeat champion (the last was Catholic in 2014-2015) in volleyball and bathe in the continuation of a success cycle that actually began in 2017.
Although head coach Barry Mingus took over the Lady Tigers volleyball program after the 2012 season, Breckinridge had been successful, but never a Region champ and after four straight seasons of 20-win or more seasons, the Lady Tigers had a much stronger team in 2017 with seniors Taylor Hines and front line hitters Abby Tivitt and Tiffany Chaney. Along with a strong sophomore class of promising hitters in Peyton Whitworth, Tessa Oliver, Halle Barr and Madison Thompson, Breckinridge County won 30-games for the first time and won the 11th District Championship and made noise in the Region Tournament until Owensboro Catholic derailed them in the semi-finals 0-3.
The 2018 team would be a different story. Behind their marvelous junior class, the Lady Tigers went on a 5-0 start then finished out 28-7 during the regular season, losing a total of 18-games during that stretch and when the playoffs arrived went a perfect 2-0 in both District matches (not dropping a game) and then the real test in the 3rd Region Tournament going 3-1 against both Owensboro Catholic and Apollo in the semi‘s and Championship game. Most impressive since Breckinridge County dropped both games to those Region foes in the regular season.
Their 32-wins (which also set a new team record) put them in the KHSAA state tournament for the first time where they met powerful Mercy. Unfortunately, their stay was a short one, but it was an unforgettable experience for the team, fans and the entire town as everyone in Harned made their presence known that day.
So going into the 2019 season, Mingus understands the value of experience in the sport and with five seniors (most are starters in the rotation) he most definitely has plenty. With the loss of just two seniors from last year’s Region Champion team, there’s no need to change anything, but just keep the team on the right course.
Mingus has said many times that the Lady Tigers are not a very tall team especially up front (even with Tivitt and Chaney in 2017, although slightly taller than their teammates, were under 6’0 compared to some of the elite competitors in their Region), but what they lack in considerable height, they make up for with exceptional athletic ability. “We tend to surprise people when they first play us because we lack in size, but we have girls that can jump with the best of them,” said Mingus. And this team might be even better if everyone can stay healthy and play up to their capabilities.
Senior Peyton Whitworth is one of those players that will be called upon to up their performance. The older of the two sisters (Audrey is just a sophomore), has played travel ball in Louisville (KIVA) for several years now and that more than anything has played a part in her development into a stellar player that began to standout in her sophomore season. Whitworth has a reputation as one of the team’s hardest hitters, plays all out when the whistle blows.
Senior Tessa Allen, like Whitworth is another undersized performer, who can really hit hard and attack the net. At about 5’9, her size is very deceiving as she can play all around, has worked on her vertical jump and seems to have a nose for the ball. Allen has continued to improve her game during the summer playing club ball and it really showed the past year and big things will be expected this season.
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Senior Halle Barr plays up top and is a devastating front line hitter. Barr, who like Allen appears undersized (at around 5’9) can attack the net and help create a defensive wall with the best of them. Like Whitworth, she has benefited from high level competition, has an improved vertical from Louisville Club system competition in Louisville (she played for KIVA last year) and can elevate with the best of them. Barr appears to ready to go come regular season.
Senior Madison Thompson is one of the unsung heroes of the Region Champion team. Slightly taller than her teammates, Thompson is a good setter and can help set the wall on the defensive side just as well. She is also a good backline player and can show her versatility at attacking the ball on the offensive side as well. Like the other seniors, she will be expected to have another big season.
Senior Kendall Miller, although part of the rotation last season will most likely play a bigger role this season. Much like Thompson, was a controlling force on the offensive side to help set up the offense for hitters like Whitworth, Allen and Barr and set up the transition game when the ball comes back over after a defensive turn.
One of the biggest factors in the team’s 2018 improvement was the quick evolution of Audrey Whitworth. A backline player, who grew several inches and added a couple more to her vertical jump as well and became a devastating front line offensive threat in her sophomore season. Playing at KIVA during the offseason had a lot to do with that as well, but perhaps her best attribute may be her ability to read opposing servers so they couldn’t target soft spots in the backline. Whitworth is quick at reading and reacting to the situation thus keeping plays alive for the offense.
Still, there are several spots up in the air as the rotation may not be set yet with sophomore Natalie Henning, junior’s Avery Aulbach, Emily Carwile, Jillian Howell and Emma Turner in the mix, but that’s a problem most coaches would love to have.
The Lady Tigers first early test was at the Bluegrass Games in Lexington and although they won every game in their division except the championship game (dropping a tough three-game set to Lexington Lafayette), Mingus had plenty of reasons to be optimistic and a couple of wrinkles to iron out as well. Like dropping the first game in several sets including the first in the final against Lafayette before rebounding strongly the rest of the way. Slow starts are not usually going to keep a coach satisfied when you are planning to defend a Region Title and Mingus is one of them as he will preach the importance of starting fast and finishing strong.
While I was watching the Breckinridge County Varsity team go through their paces during an early practice, it was obvious during their setting drills that the Lady Tiger seniors seem to play a part in running the show and that’s something that every coach wants to from their experienced members. Calling out signals, pushing the pace is something that volleyball fans understand about the game and setting up the kill or forcing a mistake is why teams practice those things.
So talent and desire will not be lacking for the 2019 Lady Tigers as it is evident that is still present, but what about the intangibles? Luck and history could be a stumbling block in the end as looking back as far as 2002, only four different teams have won the 3rd Region to represent at State and only two different teams other than Apollo (won it 6-times) and Owensboro Catholic (9-times) which ironically happened back to back (Meade County and Breckinridge County) and we know what happened to the Lady Waves last season, so will the same happen to Breckinridge County?
As the title of this story goes, the Lady Tigers would appear to be “Dressed For Success” and have the look of a winner. They may not necessarily have 6’1 middle-hitters like the traditional State Champions do and they may not come from a traditional private school volleyball factory, but they seem content to get done other ways. The KVCA preseason Coaches poll had them listed at 19 in the state and with the regular season’s first test just days away (Ohio County on the road), everyone appears to be up to the challenge. Of course , the usual images of teams trying to handle success for the first time could arise and now that the Lady Tigers have a target on their backs, the chances of them sneaking up on anyone will probably not happen this time. Mingus has said that scheduling has sometimes become a problem the past several years because with success come the pitfalls as Breckinridge County won’t be an easy “W” on an opponent’s resume, but those are problems that the traditional powers face ever season.
When I thought about putting together this story, I also thought about a conceptual image with the five seniors, not in uniform, but in formal dress to exhibit a softer side. Somehow, while we were waiting for get some volleyballs for the shoot, there was a cornfield not far from the school driveway and there we all were in front of the cornfield with the girls projecting a professional image in dress and heels.
Perhaps the Lady Tigers are beginning to have the look of a SUCCESSFUL team in a Region dominated by just two teams in nearly 17-years, but only time will tell if it’s fitting or just a mirage. Another date in Louisville in mid-November will do wonders to reinforce that thought.