They've been at .500 at 53-53 overall since Katelyn Sallee became the head coach in 2014.
A huge goal Sallee set at the beginning of her tenure was a winning season. After consecutive 17-18 campaigns, the Highlands Ladybirds volleyball team broke through last year with that feat at 19-17 overall. That marked the program's first winning season since 2010.
The next goal is a district championship. That has been difficult over the last 12 years as Newport Central Catholic has captured that crown 11 times. The lone Highlands victory in 24 meetings dating back to a 2-1 (25-23, 21-25, 25-21) Ladybird victory on Sept. 20, 2005 came by a 3-0 count (25-22, 26-24, 25-20) on Oct. 12, 2012 in the 36th District championship game.
Highlands won the first two games of the district championship last year by 26-24 and 25-21 scores. But the Thoroughbreds made the necessary adjustments and came back to win the next three games, 25-17, 25-18, 15-11 to leave Fort Thomas with yet another district title.
"I think we just get hungrier and hungrier for more," Sallee said. "Continuing to fight for (the district championship) is a real goal. We envision that every day. We don't say it. We don't harp on it. But I can tell they want it. It's time for them to get that notch under their belts."
Highlands will need to fill some big roles to do that. Six players graduated from last year's squad in setter Emma Little, defensive specialists Katty Ball, Emma Delagrange, outside hitter/setter Lauren Epperson, right side hitter Isabelle Ison and outside hitter Hannah Harris.
"I'm really thrilled with the way our team is shaping up," Sallee said. "We lost a lot last year. We lost a lot of talent and a lot of experience. We have some really solid young kids and some returning varsity seniors. So we've got a really good group of girls."
Highlands has five seniors on the squad trying to pick up the leadership roles. Libero/Defensive Specialist Gracie Schweitzer and outside hitter Maddie McCoy have varsity experience. The other three seniors are middle blocker/middle blocker Mary Claire Redden, middle blocker/right side hitter Joy Kappesser and defensive specialist/setter Skyler Phillips.
"We're friends on and off the court," Schweitzer said. "We're all really close to our coach. We just had a team lock-in and we had a lot of team bonding. We all get along really well and I think it makes us a better team."
Phillips is battling sophomore Audrey Graves for the starting position at setter. Sallee said the team is working on ball control and running the offense around the new setter in the pre-season.
"It's a building block for any team, especially when you have as many younger girls as we do coming up right now," said Margot Seidel, a Highlands junior middle blocker. "So it's important to get the fundamentals down. It's important that we're all on the same page with the dynamics of ball control and the basics."
Sophomore Ava Hockney is a returning starter at middle blocker for the Ladybirds. Hockney, Graves and outside hitter Casey Dunn saw varsity action last year. Those three are examples of the Little Birds volleyball program paying dividends.
"We've been able to have some young kids train with us a variety of different ways," Sallee said of the sophomores. "A lot of that is contributed to they're all three super athletic kids, but they're also involved year-round with club. They also had more time in that (Little Birds) program of just a bigger vision of trying to include not only sixth through 12. Just bringing excitement to the sport is important. Just getting more girls to want to wear a volleyball jersey is important when you have soccer competing and basketball competing in a school that has traditionally strong teams in those two sports."
Rounding out the roster is another junior. That is defensive specialist Olivia Gessner.
Some of the players play volleyball year-round. The team has a mixture of players that focus on volleyball and others that play more than one sport. Gessner and Graves also play basketball.
"It keeps them in shape. They're learning different types of movement with their body," Sallee said. "You see a lot of advantages in that. I'm definitely not anti-multi-sport athletes. I think it just depends on the kid."
Sallee would ultimately like to be mentioned in the same breath as the 9th Region contenders. Notre Dame has won the 9th Region the last six years and finished state runner-up a few times. St. Henry has challenged the Pandas at times. Ryle has also been up there and Cooper has risen in the last couple years.
"'There's just a culture that's different. They have girls starting a lot younger," Sallee said. "When our kids start, the have kids who have already been playing volleyball for several years. That's a big difference not to mention the magnet they have become to the talent in the area. I don't set out at the beginning of the year thinking about how can I compete with that. We're trying to take small steps. It just takes time. We can't completely shift the state of the region overnight. It takes coaches who have been there for a while and have had their hands on the program doing something the right way for a long time. That's a commitment we have to keep putting in day to day."
Highlands opens the season on Aug. 15 against Beechwood in Fort Thomas. Game time is 7 p.m.
Fort Thomas Matters Sports: 2 17 Highlands Volleyball Preview