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Afton Conner turns gleamy-eyed when describing her emotions about the Central Hardin Lady Bruins’ third straight KHSAA state tournament trip.
There’s so much history this time around.
There’s history for her class, which is the first to win three consecutive 5th Region Tournament titles. There’s a chance to become the first Central Hardin team to reach the semifinals. And there’s the fact that this is it for competitive volleyball for her. A Governor’s Scholar, she’ll attend Vanderbilt University next year.
“It’s just like the amp that you get from it. It’s just such an exciting thing. It’s such an honor to actually get there,” Conner said. “Like every year, even though we’ve done it three times in a row, the feeling never gets old. This year, it’s kind of one of those things where just getting there isn’t going to be enough. We want to get as far as we possibly can.”
Central Hardin’s quest begins at 4 p.m. today, when the No. 13 Lady Bruins (36-4) face No. 11 North Oldham (28-10) in the first round at Louisville Valley High School in Louisville – a new location for the state tournament. It was at Bellarmine University the past two years.
After reaching the elite eight for only the second time in school history last year under longtime assistant and first-year head coach Jeff Crady, the Lady Bruins are trying to make another deep run with longtime assistant and first-year head man Bill Rineker.
“It’s a special moment. We’ve worked our whole careers for this. We’d like to finish off our high school careers with a high moment,” said senior setter Abbey Sorrells, the 5th Region Player of the Year. “It’s definitely a special moment, especially considering it’s going to end our season. That’s what we’re working up to is the end of our season. We’re hoping to end on a very positive note.”
Senior defensive specialist Chelsea Grant and senior right back Sarah Rineker have known each other since they were in diapers. They’ve grown up, played middle school volleyball and been in the Kentucky Heartland Volleyball Club together with Bill Rineker as their coach.
Grant thinks another a history-making run would be a perfect way to close everything out.
“He’s always been a big part of my life,” she said of Bill Rineker. “It’ll probably be a little bit different in knowing we’ve never been there (at Valley), we don’t know what it looks like, we don’t know the surrounding area or whatever. But no matter what, where we are, we’re going to come out and go hard from the very beginning.”
Although the State locale is different, the hair-dyeing tradition for the Central Hardin players will continue. They have dyed their hair pink each of the last two years, but this year they’re going with a school color – blue.
“We don’t have very girly-girls,” Sorrells said. “We did it (pink) for breast cancer, but they wanted to change it up this year, so we’re doing blue.”
They’re following tradition, but adding their own special pizzazz to it.
While Sorrells and Conner are no strangers to playing at State, senior left back Shelby Wade is ready for an increased role. Last year, Wade played sparingly in the team’s two State matches. She’s had more of an impact this year, especially in the region Tournament, when she totaled five digs and an ace in the semifinals against Marion County and six digs and an ace against Green County in the final.
“It’s been incredible. I got to go to State last year. I was on the team. But I was more like a reserve player there for just in case,” Wade said. “So this time I feel more of a part of the team and the experience feels more like it’s mine. So it’s neat, it’s fun.”
But the days leading up to State can also put players on edge. Just ask sophomore left-side hitter Lauren Christman, who was a bundle of nerves Monday.
“It’s just their senior year. I just want to do the best I can for them,” Christman said. “And it’s the first time I’ve ever played at State. And it’s the first year I’ve ever played varsity.”
Christman hopes she can put those jitters aside. The seniors have helped her in nerve-wracking situations before, reminding her to stay positive and pulling her up after a down moment. It should be no different today.
“I’m going to be really sad when they’re gone,” Christman said. “I love these girls like sisters.”
John Groth can be reached at (270) 505-1754 or email@example.com.