Volleyball’s best continue to dominate the courts

By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports

The names are a resounding echo throughout Louisiana high school volleyball:

Mount Carmel, St. Joseph’s Academy, Pope John Paul II, Teurlings Catholic, Notre Dame, St. Thomas More, Archbishop Hannan, Country Day, Cabrini, Ursuline, McGehee, Ascension Episcopal.

Whether the year is 2018 or any other during the post-Katrina era, these programs have dominated one of the five divisions in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.

They have replaced, albeit temporarily, the old faithfuls of the great game such as Academy of the Sacred Heart, Ben Franklin, E.D. White, Fontainebleau, Assumption, Newman and Episcopal of Acadiana.

And, as the 2018 season progresses to its conclusion Nov. 8-10, the thousands of fans that will fill the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner should see much of the same dynastic performances with few exceptions.

Pope John Paul II, looking to win its fifth consecutive Division IV championship, and Cabrini, the 2017 Division II runner-up, completed the recent weekend’s Catholic League tournament with identical 5-0 records.  

Under coaches Danny Tullis and Rachel Battistella, PJPII has been the scourge of its division every year since 2014. Tullis has also coached two runners-up and a championship team at Fontainebleau.

His Jaguars, led by his daughter, the power-hitting junior Ansley Tullis, entered the week with an 11-1 record (the loss was to E.D. White) and No. 2 in the Division IV rankings to Archbishop Hannan.

Hannan (7-3) will host its northshore nemesis on Oct. 22 in a match that just might preview a subsequent Division IV championship match. The Lady Hawks were runners-up to PJPII in 2015 and 2016 and fell to Tullis’ team last year in the semis.

On a roll

Mount Carmel Academy has joined death and taxes as sure things ever since April Hagadone has coached the team. Her Cubs have won five of the last six Division I championships. And it didn’t hurt to have “Miss Volleyball” Katie Kampen for three of those campaigns, and a future “MV” in junior Ellie Holzman for the last two and a pending third title on the horizon this season.

Mount Carmel has not been beaten in 10 games and doesn’t figure to be threatened until Oct. 18, when the Cubs play Archbishop Chapelle, or on Oct. 10 against Tullis’ Lady Jags at home.

Of course, district rivals  Dominican, with an impressive 10-4 record, and Archbishop Chapelle, with even better numbers (16-3), hope to break the Cubs’ iron lock on their three-team district.

Coaching par excellence

Catholic school volleyball has been the beneficiary of outstanding coaches and developers of standout players.

Cabrini has one in former 2007 Division II MVP Kasey Laird. Now 11 years later, as Mrs. Kasey Dennies, she has led her alma mater to an 8-2 record and a 5-0 streak in the recently completed Catholic League tournament. 

The D-II runner-up to Teurlings Catholic in 2017, Cabrini is currently the No. 1-ranked team in that division with much-needed wins over Chapelle and Hannan as they prepare for a rematch with No. 2-ranked and undefeated (11-0) Teurlings Catholic as the season progresses.

Another is veteran mentor Jay Jay Juan, who is juggling his classroom and court duties with his new position as the school’s athletic director. He replaced the departed basketball coach Andrea Williams.

His teams at Mount Carmel (2006) and Ursuline (2009, 2011 and 2012) have won state titles. Last season, he notched his 600th career victory.

The Lions fell short of a fourth title, won by Vandebilt Catholic last season, and are tugging along with a 6-6 record this season and a No. 17 ranking in Division II.

Rebekka Bonnaffee joined the Hannan coaching staff in 2013 after a successful stint as head coach at St. Louis Catholic of Lake Charles. It was there she established herself as a rising star in the coaching ranks. Bonnaffee’s 2006 team won the Division III championship. 

Over the past three seasons with Bonnaffee at the helm, the Lady Hawks have been among the top three teams in their division, losing only to Pope John Paul II in the post-season.

Then there is Ashley Ruckert, a Sacred Heart Cardinal through and through. 

The star of the 2002 Division III crown via a win over St. Louis Catholic, Ruckert earned the MVP award. The championship was the Cardinals’ 12th of 13 state titles and one of three gold trophies the school won while she was on the team.

As the current head coach and athletic director, Ruckert  is rebuilding the Cardinals, who have three third-place finishes over the past four seasons. And she’s doing it with a roster devoid of seniors.

Among her top players is sophomore May Manning, daughter of Cooper Manning and granddaughter of Archie and Olivia Manning.

The Cardinals entered the week with a 6-7 record. One of their losses came in four games against Dominican on Sept. 6.

But an outcome that was disappointing to them was a celebration for their opponent.

Dominican’s victory its gave veteran head coach Jessica Chatellier a milestone 300th victory.  

Chasing the Cubs

Dominican last won a district title in 2006. The team last played for a Division I championship in 2010 but settled for the silver trophy after losing to archrival Mount Carmel.

The team’s record is 10-4,  with its toughest tests to come when Dominican hosts Mount Carmel on Oct. 1 and visits the Lakeview campus on  Oct. 23, and plays at Archbishop Chapelle on Oct. 9 before hosting the Chipmunks on Oct. 16.

Under the coaching of Mary Ann Stelly,  Chapelle is off to its best start since 2015 when the Chipmunks made it to the Division I semifinal round.

Stelly’s squad ran off 12 consecutive wins before losing to Mount Carmel (25-18, 25-13) in a tournament at H.L. Bourgeois. They rallied with three more wins before losing to Pope John Paul II and Cabrini in the Catholic League tournament.  

In the new millennium, Mount Carmel’s perennial nemesis has been St. Joseph’s Academy. The two have met seven times in the Division I championship game since 2002, with the Cubs winning the last three and the Redstickers the first four.

But that rivalry may have seen its better matches. The two have played twice this season, and the Cubs prevailed in all five games. The most points the ‘Stickers scored was 19. 

The Cubs seem to have two suitors for their title in Dutchtown (9-0) and Ponchatoula (10-2), which are ranked among the division leaders.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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