2022 All-Area Volleyball: Blackburn builds back up for Tigers
Bella Blackburn has been a centerpiece of the Paintsville volleyball team since her freshman year.
Blackburn was looking to build off a successful first two seasons with the Tigers entering her junior campaign in 2021.
However, her hopes were sidelined in a preseason scrimmage when she tore her ACL and had to miss the entirety of the season.
Blackburn worked hard and came back for a strong senior season that led to her being named The Daily Independent All-Area Player of the Year.
“Being named All-Area Player of the Year means everything to me,” Blackburn said. “It feels extremely rewarding after working so hard to come back from injury. I couldn’t have done it without being blessed with such a talented team.”
Over the course of her three-year playing career, Blackburn amassed more than 2,500 kills. In her final run as a senior, Blackburn had 1,030 assists, 236 digs, 51 aces, 35 kills and 17 blocks.
Paintsville coach Dawn Kinner said Blackburn “came back better than she was before she was injured.”
“The pain that you see a kid go through and then the work that she put in outside of the physical therapy just to be able to come back and play is just a great thing to see as a coach,” Kinner said. “That’s why I’m so proud of her, to see the success that she had this season and the level that she came back at.”
Blackburn credits her teammates for helping her get the motivation to come back as well as receiving the Player of the Year honor.
“I give all the credit to my teammates,” Blackburn said. “It all starts with a pass. By getting a good pass, I can do my job and help set my teammates to get kills.
“We have outstanding hitters and I especially couldn’t have done it without them. Being surrounded with such talented players make it easy for me to do my job.”
Paintsville went 38-3 and won the All “A” Classic state championship, dropping just one out of 13 sets in that tournament. That run was made possible by a come-from-behind effort against Covington Holy Cross.
“I will remember winning the All ‘A’ state championship the most,” Blackburn said. “Being down by a set and almost losing the second set, we came storming back to win it all. That took grit.
“It was the perfect example of hard work paying off. I’ll never forget the last point of that game.”
Kinner and Boyd County coach Katee Neltner were named Co-Coaches of the Year.
While the two have been pivotal in the push to the top for their respective programs, both coaches credit their players and those around them for their successes.
“I think it’s just a testament to the work that our girls put in,” Kinner said. “They make my job easy, when you have kids that buy in to your program and parents that buy in and a community that buys in.
“I have a great assistant in Jessica Davis. We just work so good together. I think it’s just a testament to what we’ve built here, and the buy-in from these girls and the hard work they’ve put in.”
Neltner said much of the same about her Lions.
“My girls have allowed me to love them, and they trusted me to do what was best for them and the program, which allowed me to coach them and coach them hard,” Neltner said. “They made themselves available to be molded and corrected, even when it wasn’t fun or pretty, and when you have athletes that trust the process and buy in to the mentality you try and establish in a winning program, the sky is the limit.
“These girls made this program what it is today and are the reason I am the coach I am today.”
Both coaches also pointed to the focus that area schools are putting on developing volleyball players at a younger age as a turning point for the sport in northeastern Kentucky.
“I think that once anyone sees what volleyball looks like when it is played and played well – there’s a switch that flips,” Neltner said. “There’s no other sport like volleyball and I am just proud to be a small part of teaching young girls to love this sport and play it properly.”
Boyd County had the most All-Area representatives with four: Taylor Bartrum, Lyndsey Ekers, Carly Mullins and Emma Sparks.
Bartrum was last year’s All-Area Player of the Year. She finished with 351 kills, 73 service aces and 20 blocks.
Mullins was named to the all-state tournament team following Boyd County’s loss to Paul Laurence Dunbar. She had 246 kills, 86 digs, 32 aces and 26 blocks.
Ekers has been the Lions’ leader defensively throughout her career. She accumulated 401 digs.
Sparks led the team in kills (365), blocks (32) and aces (78). She also racked up 157 digs.
Raceland finished with three Rams on the All-Area list. They won the district championship for the first time since 2016 and finished as 16th Region Tournament runner-up.
Elizabeth Rigsby led Raceland with 281 kills and was tied for the team lead with 64 blocks. Rigsby also had 73 aces.
Reagan Mackie’s 439 digs were first most for the Rams. She also had 110 kills and 19 blocks.
Kody Haddix had a complete season for Raceland, racking up 626 assists, 303 digs and 108 kills.
Paintsville, Ashland, Fairview and Rowan County also had multiple All-Area honorees.
Hailey Little was an offensive threat throughout the season for Paintsville. Little’s 409 kills and 76 aces were most for the Tigers. Her 39 blocks were second.
Ashland finished with the 16th Region’s second-most wins at 30.
Sophomores Grace Clark and Khia Robinson represent the Volleycats.
Clark had 950 assists, 303 digs and 125 kills. She also posted 98 aces.
Robinson had a team-leading 400 kills to go along with 310 digs, 62 aces and 13 blocks.
Fairview’s Kiera Loving had some spectacular stats. The senior had 771 assists, 198 kills, 176 digs, 101 aces and 45 blocks.
The Eagles also had Graycin Price selected. Price’s 452 kills were a team-best, as were her 133 aces. She also got 311 digs.
Rowan County’s All-Area selections are Madison Roar and Destiny Utterback.
Roar had 696 assists from her setter spot. Her 86 aces led the team, and she added 76 kills and 25 blocks.
Utterback was the Valkyries’ leader in kills (275) and digs (350).
Sarah Paige Weddington was Lewis County’s selection. She had 437 kills and 325 digs, which was the team’s most. Weddington also had 21 blocks and 40 aces.
Zoe Stidham of East Carter collected 231 digs and 230 kills. Along with that, Stidham had 31 blocks to lead the team and 77 aces.
TK Ellis rounds out the All-Area picks. The Lawrence County selection had 126 kills, 108 aces and 221 digs.
Northeastern Kentucky coaches’ votes composed the All-Area team. The newspaper’s sports department selected the Player and Co-Coaches of the Year.
2022 The Daily Independent All-Area Volleyball Team
Taylor Bartrum (Boyd County)
Bella Blackburn (Paintsville)
Grace Clark (Ashland)
Lyndsey Ekers (Boyd County)
TK Ellis (Lawrence County)
Kody Haddix (Raceland)
Hailey Little (Paintsville)
Kiera Loving (Fairview)
Reagan Mackie (Raceland)
Carly Mullins (Boyd County)
Graycin Price (Fairview)
Elizabeth Rigsby (Raceland)
Madison Roar (Rowan County)
Khia Robinson (Ashland)
Emma Sparks (Boyd County)
Zoe Stidham (East Carter)
Destiny Utterback (Rowan County)
Sarah Paige Weddington (Lewis County)
Player of the Year
Bella Blackburn (Paintsville)
Co-Coaches of the Year
Dawn Kinner (Paintsville) and Katee Neltner (Boyd County)
Honorable mention: Sophie Adkins (Lawrence County), Reanna Brown (West Carter), Kenzie Burton (East Carter), Aly Caldwell (Boyd County), Emily Clark (Russell), Carleigh Conley (Boyd County), Carmin Corey (Russell), Mayson Delong (Johnson Central), Randi Delong (Johnson Central), Kameron Fry (Fairview), Sophia Gifford (Boyd County), Sydney Hallock (Rowan County), Isabel Hensley (Rose Hill Christian), Mallory Hicks (West Carter), Shaelee Holbrook (Raceland), Gracen Layman (Ashland), Abby Malone (Lewis County), Shelby Marcum (Fairview), Brittany McCarty (Johnson Central), Blair Ratliff (Paintsville), Gracie Reed (Raceland), Kynzi Slone (Paintsville), Alexis Thompson (East Carter), Kara Ward (Paintsville), Alexis Williams (Fleming County)
Ben Spicer | For The Daily Independent Dec 14, 2022