UNION, Ky. -- When Kaity Smith steps onto the volleyball court, she sees a family.
The senior hitter on the Cooper High School volleyball team began playing with her Jaguars family members in sixth grade when she says classmate Rebecca Ruppel “made" her play. Since then, the team has gelled into a force in Northern Kentucky high school volleyball.
The Jaguars are 21-3 this season and are among the favorites for a 9th Region title after falling in regional final to Notre Dame Academy last October.
“The team really has the chemistry of a family and we do a really good job of being a family and being there for each other,” Smith said. “If you hate each other, you’re not going to win any games. We have a really good chemistry and connection with our team.”
Cooper will play either Conner (11-13) or Heritage (8-18) in the 33rd District semifinals at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18 at Ryle High School. Ryle (17-15) and Boone County (22-10) will play in the other semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and the winners will meet Wednesday for the district title. The district champions and runners-up will advance to next week’s 9th Region tournament.
Smith, a Virginia Tech recruit, is the centerpiece on the court for Cooper and is among six seniors leading the powerful Jaguars. She will enter Tuesday’s match with 1,249 kills during her career, according to Cooper coach Michelle Isaac.
“She has been strong,” Isaac said. “This group of girls has been together for so long, it’s just gelled.”
Smith has more than 230 kills already this season.
“She is a really good all-around player and that’s why I think a lot of people look up to her, including me,” sophomore hitter Morgan Kelly said. “She is a phenomenal outside hitter. She can play back row, she can block and she can set.”
Smith began to emerge as a star player in Northern Kentucky as a freshman at Cooper and has worked to improve since, taking private lessons and pushing herself in practice.
“I realized that I wanted to try to not make my parents pay a penny for college,” Smith said. “So I just worked on that to try to get a full ride.”
The result was a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech.
“I worked hard and it got me where I am,” Smith said. “It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders. All the stress of calling coaches, emailing them, worrying about what I have to say. A lot of weight was lifted off my shoulders and it felt really good.”
The focus now is a championship for the volleyball family and Smith is confident in her teammates no matter the foe.
“We trust each other,” Smith said. “We know we can trust each other getting the ball, hitting the ball, setting the ball. It’s basically just trust. If we keep playing how we’re playing, we’ll go pretty far.”
The Cooper senior class also features libero Hailey Gillespie, who has 1,056 digs in her career, and Ruppel.
“She plays all six positions,” Smith said of Ruppel. “She can do everything from passing to hitting. She is an all-around great player. Our libero, Haley Gillespie, can get any ball really. I’ve been playing with her since sixth grade too. She gets to every ball that you can imagine.”
Kelly and juniors Chelan Beasley and Chloe Vanover lead things up front with junior Carlie Wise and sophomore Madi Buys at setter.
The Jaguars have won 19 of their last 20 matches and two of their three losses this season have come to defending regional champions -- North Oldham of the 8th Region and Notre Dame. Cooper won the first two sets from Notre Dame in the first match of the season before dropping the final three. Not coming up short again has been a point of emphasis throughout 2016.
“We kind of came up a little short, so it’s been our driving force this season,” Isaac said. “We don’t want to come up short again. They’re peaking at the right time and they’re working well together. They want this. We have six seniors on the team and they’re experienced players. We have a deep bench that we can use. It doesn’t matter who we are playing, as long as we are playing within ourselves and doing the little things.”