The Ninth Region volleyball tournament semifinals have been the domain of Northern Kentucky’s Big Three: Notre Dame Academy, St. Henry and Ryle – for more than a decade.
Cooper, in its eighth year, is elbowing into the discussion with semifinal appearances two of the past three seasons while qualifying for the regional six times. But the upstart Jaguars are interested in something more than being part of a local Big Four. They want the big one – a first-ever regional championship.
“The goals are to win the district, and we want to make it to state and do the best we can there,” Cooper captain Hailey Gillespie said. “We are going to do it with teamwork.”
They picked up another victory Tuesday with a sweep against Dixie Heights, winning 25-17, 25-7, 25-17. Gillespie, a junior libero, led the Jaguars with 11 digs. She averages more than 20 digs per match.
Classmate Kaity Smith, a middle hitter, and freshman hitter Morgan Kelly were co-kill leaders with 10 each. Smith averages a team-best 11 kills per match. Junior hitter Rebecca Ruppel is also among Cooper’s kill leaders.
The win came on the heels of a 4-1 runner-up finish at the two-day Thoroughbred Smash at Lexington Lafayette. The Jaguars swept four teams, including an 18-4 Russell County squad that also lost just one tournament match. Russell County, the three-time defending 16th Region champion, won 41 of its past 53 matches but was no match for the Jags, who won Saturday, 25-14, 25-12.
At 12-7 and with just three seniors, the Jaguars have the second-most wins in the Ninth Region behind St. Henry. They’ve won eight of their past 11 matches. Fueling the success is a more powerful attack and a more effectively communicating defense.
“We’ve got more hitters this year, so we have more options,” Cooper coach Michelle Isaac said. “On defense, we’re starting to learn that when we communicate well, we’re effective. It’s about negotiating space and playing as a team, and we’re starting to do that.”
The Jaguars are putting together one of the area’s more unheralded team streaks because they toil in the shadows of the perennially powerful Pandas, Crusaders and Raiders. Ranked 12th in the Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association state poll, if the Jaguars stay in the top 25, it will be the third year in a row they’ve done so.
The Jaguars finished the 2013 season with a record of 25-8 and ranked 19th statewide. They were 20-14 and ranked 23rd in last year’s season-ending poll. The near-term goal is to finish atop the region – but Notre Dame, St. Henry and Ryle will have a say.
All three are in Kentucky’s top 10. Notre Dame is ranked third. Ryle is ranked sixth. St. Henry is ninth. Notre Dame has won seven of the past eight regional crowns. Notre Dame and St. Henry have played in eight of the past 12 regional finals. Notre Dame, St. Henry and Ryle have been semifinalists 10 of the past 12 years.
Cooper, 33rd District runner-up to Ryle each of the past four seasons, wants a piece of the action.
“I think we can play with Ryle,” Isaac said. The Jags face the Raiders Sept. 29. “We were competitive (against Notre Dame and St. Henry). I will take my chances with these girls.”