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Dan Weber's Just Sayin': St. Henry Wins State Volleyball Title; Friday's Football Pairings

Dan Weber writes a sports column for The River City News. Contact him at dweber3440@aol.com.

When they honored the 40th anniversary of the school’s lone state volleyball champions in January, they may have just been foreshadowing what was to happen this past weekend for the St. Henry Crusader volleyballers?

Maybe.

“I had the talent,” Maureen Shea Kaiser says of her small school Erlanger kids who beat two Louisville powers, Sacred Heart and Mercy, back to back Saturday at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester for the school’s second state title in a non-class sport.

“It’s hard to believe,” Kaiser was saying Sunday as she looked back at how it all played out. Louisville schools have won 24 of the last 25 state volleyball championships.

And yet it was no surprise, really.

“I have three D-1 commits,” Kaiser said out of her seven seniors who provided the kind of leadership champions require. Tourney MVP Taylor Preston is headed to Oklahoma. The middle hitter had 25 kills in a three-game finals sweep of Mercy. Setter Cora Taylor (42 assists in the three-game finals) is headed to Butler while libero Abby Schaefer is on her way to Western Kentucky.

“But to beat two of them in one day, everything has to go your way,” Kaiser said. Or you have to make it go your way. “We beat Notre Dame at the end of September and we were rolling.” 

To get to the finals Saturday, St. Henry had to beat Sacred Heart, the state’s top-ranked team in the semis. St. Henry had lost 2-1 to Sacred Heart twice early in a Tennessee tournament on the way to a challenging 45-match schedule that Kaiser says prepared the Crusaders for this moment. As it turned out, the much-improved Crusaders won their last 11 straight matches and nine of their 10 sets through the weekend against three opponents – Bowling Green (3-0, 25-15, 25-20, 25-18), Sacred Heart (3-1, 23-25, 25-11, 26-24, 27-25), and Mercy (3-0, 25-15, 25-18, 25-14).

“Everybody had a part,” Kaiser said of her deep roster. “We dress 15 . . . we had great leadership from our seven seniors . . . when you have a lot of talent, each person has to embrace their role . . . some are there for support, some will play six rotations, some will play three . . .”

But there has to be buy-in from everybody. “We started July 15,” Kaiser said “and we finish up in November.” It’s more than volleyball. “We go to dinner together, we go to church together.” And with all the free time Saturday between the semis at 10 in the morning and the finals at 7 p.m., they “played board games together,” Kaiser said.

“We build a program,” she said and in doing so, “a family.”

Speaking of family, Kaiser, who is probably the most outstanding athlete in St. Henry history, a state champ in track and field, an outstanding basketball player, and a volleyball player who went on to an extremely successful career in college at Notre Dame, noted how she has three sons but has coached only girls in her 30-year St. Henry career.

“Coaching girls sports is different from coaching the boys,” she says. Girls can be more “emotional,” “more analytical,” and “do more thinking about how things are going – and why,” Kaiser says.

So that buy-in where everybody knows, understands and is fully vested in their roles is really key. But it helps to have your actual family involved as well.

“When we showed up for the championship game, the first person I saw in the gym was my dad,” Kaiser said of Dan Shea, a baseball coach at St. Henry and onetime Newport Central Catholic baseball star. The second? “My mom (Rosemary).”

But there was an extended family from that 1981 championship team that Kaiser watched as a freshman on the JV team. That team’s coach, Katie Wesseling, now a volleyball official, was at the finals along with five or six of the members of that team.

“I’m a graduate of St. Henry, too,” Kaiser says. There’s something special going on here. “Our boys cross-country team won the state last week.” And if last year’s boys basketball team had been able to get out of the Ninth Region against the likes of Highlands, Covington Catholic, or Beechwood, they’d have probably won the state the way Highlands did.

“I can’t describe it,” Kaiser says of what’s happening for the success the 485-student St. Henry District High School is having, “but I know it is.”

The St. Henry win gives Northern Kentucky two straight volleyball state titles after Notre Dame won its ninth – but first since 1994 – a year ago. Local teams had dominated the state early, winning the first six (Notre Dame in 1979, Villa Madonna in 1980, St. Henry 1981 and then Notre Dame again in 1982, 1983, and 1984 and nine of the first 13. But until last year, Notre Dame’s 1994 title was the last for Northern Kentucky.

*** PLAYOFF FOOTBALL SCHEDULE SET . . . A total of 11 Northern Kentucky football teams advanced to seven games this second week in the state high school football playoffs Friday with the higher-ranked team according to the RPI ratings the host. Here’s how those games break down: 

*** Class A: Nicholas County (7-5) in a rematch against 11-0 Bishop Brossart, a 14-0 winner in the regular season when they played in District 5 in Alexandria. In District 4, Dayton (5-6) travels to 8-3 Newport Central Catholic for a replay of NewCath’s 23-6 regular season win after the Greendevils upset a Ludlow team 20-7 last week after losing to the Panthers 49-6 just two weeks earlier.

*** Class 2A: Holy Cross (3-8) reversed its 40-7 regular season loss to Lloyd Friday with a 36-29 upset win over the Juggs to advance to another District 6 rematch at unbeaten Beechwood (11-0), a 56-7 winner over Holy Cross in the regular season. Also in 2A, in District 5, Walton-Verona (8-3) gets a rematch against a 7-4 Carroll County team that lost its first three games to covid before winning seven of its last eight except for a 24-7 loss at a Walton-Verona team that’s won six straight.

*** Class 4A: In the wacky world of 4A, a 7-4 Scott team that had lost three weeks ago to Holmes 40-0 before beating the Bulldogs 35-8 last week in the playoffs will face a 3-8 Harrison County team that had lost 58-7 to Holmes in the regular season but then beat a top-seeded Rowan County team that had beaten both Harrison County and Holmes in the regular season to open the playoffs. Scott beat Harrison County 35-14 in their regular season matchup. Got that?

*** Class 5A: They’re down to two in this competitive district where everybody tries to knock off Covington Catholic’s 8-3 Colonels who advanced with a 38-8 win over Highlands Friday. They’ll get a rematch against Conner’s 7-4 Cougars, who upset Cooper 10-3 to advance to a rematch Friday at CovCath after losing 27-7 to the Colonels three weeks ago.

*** Class 6A: It’s Ryle (8-3) against Dixie Heights (7-4) as the top two in 6A advance to Friday’s game in Union where they met in a regular season 13-12 win for the home-standing Raiders. Looks like it could be the best game of the night . . . JUST SAYIN’.

--Dan Weber