ZACK KLEMME: Tigers take their turn in volleyball spotlight

PAINTSVILLE Paintsville High School’s gym turns 70 in December, and its patrons know a big moment when they see one.

The girls basketball state career scoring record was set here on the 2016 night Jenkins’s Whitney Creech poured in 71 points in an overtime triumph over the homestanding Tigers.

The 1996 boys hoops state champions held forth on the court now named after their coach, Bill Mike Runyon. So did two Mr. Basketballs — John Pelphrey (1987) and J.R. VanHoose (1998).

And many roundball 15th Region Tournaments took place here before that event moved to what was then called the East Kentucky Expo Center in 2006.

Never before Monday, though, were the temporary bleachers used to augment seating capacity for big basketball games erected on the gym’s stage for a volleyball match.

The occasion seemed fitting. Nine-time state champion Notre Dame was in town for the first round of the state tournament.

And, as Paintsville made a last-ditch third-set run, the atmosphere was appropriate for such a moment.

Hailey Little delivered a block for a point. Kylie Kinner scored at the net. Kat Baldwin chipped in an ace. Kinner added another scoring block. Blair Ratliff produced a kill.

The blue-clad crowd roared.

The Tigers were going toe-to-toe with a bona fide blueblood.

“Then you’re thinking, here we go,” Paintsville coach Dawn Kinner said. “We’re a team of runs. When we get on runs like that, and to have our fans behind us, those girls feed off of that energy.

“It was a great moment, and something that I know all these girls will remember when they look back on their volleyball careers.”

The Tigers ultimately couldn’t extend that spurt, which gave them a lead at one point of 15-12 in Set 3, into a full-fledged comeback. Peyton Mast’s lefty spike lifted the Pandas to a 25-21 third-set victory that completed a Notre Dame sweep.

But the Pandas left with a respect for their opponent, and at least one Notre Dame backer got a kick out of the venue, taking a cell-phone photo of Tigers favorite son Kash Daniel’s headshot proudly displayed in the lobby.

If the Pandas, who hail from tony Cincinnati suburb Park Hills, thought their tradition and high achievement warranted a break from the KHSAA from the three-hour-plus drive to the mountains, co-coach Jenna Leistner didn’t say so to a reporter —even if the length of the trip meant fellow co-coach Leslie Litmer, nearing full term on her pregnancy, deemed it best to stay home.

Notre Dame, after all, was winning state championships in volleyball before, in all likelihood, most residents of Paintsville had ever even seen one point in a volleyball match. The Pandas claimed the first KHSAA-sanctioned crown in 1979 and collected five more before the 1980s were out.

The Tigers, meanwhile, started their volleyball program in 1999, said Jason Kinner. Now the coach’s husband, he was a junior at Paintsville at the time.

The Tigers are up-and-coming. They won their first All “A” Classic state championship this season, becoming only the second non-Catholic private school to win that tournament in its 14 years.

So having Notre Dame in town would have been significant enough for Paintsville even if it hadn’t managed to challenge the Pandas in the first and third sets.

Notre Dame recognized that significance in program-building.

“It’s an awesome experience to be here,” Leistner said. “Paintsville is an amazing team. We knew coming into this environment that they were going to be ready to go, and just preparing mentally was part of it as well coming into this town because we knew that they were going to be ready.

“(Paintsville has) a great head coach that has seen great success with her program, so we didn’t expect anything less than a great game of volleyball tonight.”

Monday was about that, about finding the best representative to the state quarterfinals today in Winchester.

But it was also about legitimizing volleyball in eastern Kentucky and finding the momentum to keep growing the game here – not only for the sake of the Tigers who took the floor on this night, but also for the four likely elementary-aged fans wearing blue and black practicing their bumping and passing on the court as the crowd trickled out after the game.

“That was what I was most excited for, was just for them to experience this environment,” Kinner said. “For me, those are the games you remember, win or lose, just playing in that environment. I’m so excited that these girls, especially these seniors, got to experience that.”

Posted in Sports.