There is a memory-laden 4-year-old photograph of a former Conner Middle School volleyball team making the rounds on Facebook. Heather Helinski took the picture when her daughter, Cali Helinski, was a seventh-grader.
In the frame with the younger Helinski are most of the players on this year’s surprise Conner Cougars, who already have surpassed their varsity win total of last season with a team-wide effort founded in familiarity with one another.
“To see ourselves together that young, and to be so little and to come so far, makes us feel really good,” Cali Helinski said. “We definitely are a team because most of us have been playing together for so long.”
The picture made it onto a teammate’s phone at the Highlands JV Cupcake Classic. The girls just had to show it to their coach, Anthony Pfeffer. So, they passed him the phone.
“It was hilarious,” the Conner coach said. “They were all toothpicks, which was something because they’re big juniors and seniors now. It showed how long these girls have been together. I think it’s the continuity that’s behind our success. The girls know each other, and the picture is hilarious proof.”
The Cougars finished 10-14 last year. They won their 10th match this season, a 3-1 upset of state-ranked Cooper, with a month remaining on the schedule. Cooper is 12th in the Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association state poll. The next time out, the Cougars exceeded last year’s win total with a sweep of defending 32nd District champion Simon Kenton, giving them four wins in five matches.
Conner started the season taking six of seven, with a win against returning 10th Region tournament finalist Campbell County. They also beat 10th Region semifinalist George Rogers Clark and reigning 10th Region All “A” Classic champion Bishop Brossart. They upset last year’s Eighth Region finalist, Oldham County, ranked 13th statewide.
The 6-0 record against traditionally successful programs followed a 1-3 mark last year against most of the same teams. Conner has added a pair of wins against perennially tough Highlands and a district seeding win against fellow 33rd District upstart Boone County, tied with Cooper for the third most victories in the Ninth Region.
Fueling the Cougars are their upperclassmen, whose long-standing ties bind them together. Helinski is the kill leader with a big helping hand from fellow junior Lauren Watts.
“Continuity is a huge thing for us,” Helinski said. “We have really good team chemistry.”
Junior setter DeAndrea Atwood, a co-captain along with senior hitter Allison Jones, is the assist leader. Senior defensive specialist Rian Boelter and freshman libero Carolina Hester are dig leaders. Senior Taylor Koors, a 6-foot-2 hitter, leads in blocks. Koors was so short when she was in the Helinski photo that she was put in front with the other smaller girls.
“Almost all of them have been in the varsity program four years,” Pfeffer said. “They’re doing some good things. We had never beaten Cooper. We’ve got some big matches coming up, and we’d like to keep it going in the district, which I think is wide open.”
BEECHWOOD BUZZING: Beechwood, ranked 22nd by the KVCA, returned from the Touchstone Energy All “A” Classic state tournament with a runner-up trophy. The Tigers, making their first appearance, led 1-0 in the championship match before narrowly succumbing to champion Louisville Presentation, 18-25, 25-22, 25-18.
Named all-tournament were Liz Pawsat and Maggie Stuempel. They were joined by Bishop Brossart’s Lindsay Leick and Walton-Veron’s Abby Knight. Brossart and Walton lost in the first round, as all three local teams advanced to the championship bracket.