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LOUISVILLE — Emotionally drained, Central Hardin volleyball players still remembered what’s pushed them the last three years.
Two years ago, 2012 graduate Breanna Sao taught them what the word meant. Last year, the team adopted the saying as its motto. At the state tournament this season, players wore black warm-up T-shirts with the word written in white letters on the back – just above their names – as they warmed up for their match.
That’s also what – and who – helped comfort them after Friday’s 23-25, 25-16, 25-18, 25-15 loss to 8th Region champion North Oldham in the first round of the KHSAA State Tournament at Louisville Valley.
There were a few tears shed by the nine seniors, who became the first Central Hardin group to reach the state tournament three straight years and had hoped to duplicate or improve their elite eight performance of last year. But mainly they shared hugs – and understanding.
“I gave everything to my team and I know they gave me everything,” said senior middle hitter Sydney Hall. “I’m just glad.”
Central Hardin (36-5) had yet another stellar year, as the Lady Bruins won their third consecutive 17th District and 5th Region Tournament titles, sweeping all five of their opponents. Central Hardin became the first team to three-peat in the region and did so with a dominant 25-11, 25-18, 25-11 victory over Green County in the championship match at the Roby Dome in Lebanon.
“It’s always hard to leave like this. But we made history this year. What more could you ask for?” said senior right-side hitter Afton Conner. “Of course we wanted to go farther in state but I think we’ve all had amazing careers. So we just have to be confident about it.”
This season, the Lady Bruins won their own Queens of the Court tournament, won the silver division at the Jefferson County Invitational and finished third in the Bluegrass Invitational at the Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington.
Four of Central Hardin’s five losses came to teams ranked in the top 20 of the Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association final Top 25 poll.
“I think we had an amazing season. Not many people can say they’ve won districts and region three times in a row, so you’ve just got to accept that and you’ve just got to be happy about what you can be happy about and remember the good things,” said 5th Region Player of the Year Abbey Sorrells, a senior setter who finished with 29 assists and 11 digs. “We played good tonight. We have some good memories. We worked hard. There’s not much you can do.”
Seniors Courtney Helton, Alneisha Butler, Eden Tharpe, Sarah Rineker, Chelsea Grant, Shelby Wade, Conner, Sorrells and Hall finished 54-0 against region teams and 31-0 against district opponents over the last three years.
In their three state appearances, the group has lost in the first round twice and reached the elite eight once – doing so last year for just the second time in school history.
It’s the first main group longtime assistant coach Rita Highbaugh, who’s been with the program since it started, brought up from middle school. First-year coach Bill Rineker thinks they lived up to their billing.
“You know what, the three-year run that this group has been on, win or lose, I can’t be anymore proud of them,” Rineker said. “They did everything they could, could not ask for any more out of them. I’m not unhappy at all.”
Rineker’s daughter, Sarah, kept her emotions in check. She sacrificed her body, recording a season-high 10 digs and he thought she played her best match there by far. Although she’s done with high school volleyball, don’t expect this to be her last state tournament. She and her dad have a plan, she joked.
“It has (sunk in). I’m holding back the tears. It meant a lot because it’s my senior year. It’s my last tournament, so it meant a lot. But I’ll probably be back helping my dad coach and everything. So hopefully this isn’t my last time going to State,” Sarah Rineker said. “Our goal is by the time I’m out of college and have a teaching job, he retires and I take over.”
John Groth can be reached at (270) 505-1754 or email@example.com.