All 'A' state volleyball: Tigers turn it up, win championship

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Sep. 18—RICHMOND — Covington Holy Cross was one point away from winning the All "A" Classic state volleyball championship on Saturday.

But Paintsville wasn't finished.

Down one set already in the best-of-three championship match and trailing 24-22 in Set 2, the Tigers came roaring back with the next four points to even the match. And Paintsville roared to a 25-18 win in the third set to claim the Tigers' first small-school state title, 2-1 (18-25, 26-24, 25-18), at Eastern Kentucky University's McBrayer Arena.

Paintsville has won three 15th Region Tournament titles in Dawn Kinner's 13 years as coach, but even those paled in comparison to what the Tigers did Saturday, she said.

"For me and the team, for our program in general, this is the biggest win that our program's ever had, even with the regional championships and the district championships," she said. "This one, by far, I think it means more to all of us to bring home a state title."

Blair Ratliff produced 14 kills and seven blocks for the Tigers. Bella Blackburn dished 30 assists, 10 digs and three aces. Kynzie Slone supplied 14 digs and Kara Ward chipped in 14 digs.

Hailey Little made eight kills and Kylie Kinner netted seven kills. Olivia Maynard contributed eight digs.

Ratliff was named the tournament's MVP. Blackburn, Slone and Ward represented the Tigers on the All-Tournament Team.

Paintsville, long one of the region's top programs of any size — but especially All "A" size — hadn't even qualified for the All "A" state tournament for the previous four seasons. That had gone on long enough that talk around the program referred to it as the "All 'A' curse," Kinner said.

That curse ended when the Tigers beat four-time defending tournament champion Pikeville in the All "A" region semifinals — avenging four years' worth of All "A" losses to the Panthers — and topped Betsy Layne in the final.

Kinner said after that match that Paintsville was excited to go to All "A" State, but that wasn't the end goal.

"Our goal," she said during the ride back home Saturday, "was to get to State and make some noise. We wanted to get down there and prove to people eastern Kentucky teams never get the recognition they deserve in any of the rankings. We've got a lot of talented girls in our area and this team, so I'm proud of them.

"It for us says, 'Hey, look at us — even though we're from eastern Kentucky and not a northern Kentucky or Louisville school, we're still a pretty solid program.'"

Paintsville (24-2) swept through pool play, topping Wolfe County and Williamsburg on Friday night and Presentation on Saturday morning, garnering the top seed from its pool.

The Tigers then knocked off Bethlehem in the quarterfinals, 2-0 (25-19, 25-21), and beat Community Christian of Paducah, 2-0 (25-17, 25-13), in the semifinals.

That led to a championship match with Holy Cross (20-6), which represents two of the traditional seats of power in volleyball in the commonwealth — northern Kentucky and Catholic schools.

Paintsville topped the three-time All "A" state champion Indians, becoming the second public school to win the crown in the 14-year history of the tournament. Caldwell County was the first, in 2010.

"That just goes to the type of competition that they had to compete against," Kinner said of that distinction, "and I'm so proud of the way they all came together and just fought. It was just heart and grit."

That completed a run of six victories in six matches over the course of less than 24 hours. Paintsville swept the first five of them, winning 12 of the 13 sets it played in Richmond.

The Tigers' trip to the Rocky Top Classic in Sevierville, Tennessee, the weekend before effectively prepared Paintsville for that grind, Kinner said.

"It was a good test mentally and physically," she said. "I'm super proud of the girls for playing through the fatigue and any nagging pains, and just to come out on top, it's just amazing. It's a wonderful feeling."

16th Region All "A" champion Raceland went 1-2 in pool play, topping Todd County Central 2-1 (25-15, 22-25, 25-15) and slipping to Eminence and Whitesville Trinity, both by 2-0 scores.

The Rams (16-6) lost to Trinity Christian, 2-0 (25-23, 25-18), in consolation bracket play on Saturday.

In the Kentucky 2A state quarterfinals, Greenup County fell to Taylor County, 3-0 (25-8, 25-12, 25-15) on Friday in Owensboro. The Musketeers' Kortney Stephens was named to the All-Tournament Team.