|Preston helped St. Henry to its first state title since 1981|
|PHOTO: Mark Setters. St. Henry senior Taylor Preston took a swing in the state tournament last fall. Preston recently won the Gatorade Player of the Year award in volleyball for Kentucky.|
Taylor Preston first heard about winning the Kentucky High School Volleyball Gatorade Player of the Year award from Oklahoma University Head Coach Lindsey Gray Walton.
Preston earned the award after helping the St. Henry Crusaders to their first state championship since 1981 in November. St. Henry Head Coach Maureen Kaiser
told Preston she was ready a few months ago.
Preston is in with a shot at the National Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a result. She can also give a $1,000 grant to a local or national organization that helps young athletes recognize the benefits of exercising.
Standing at 6-feet-2-inches, Preston will play collegiately for the Sooners this fall. Gray-Walton was an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky before joining Norman in 2018.
“Now that I’m here and actually winning it, I have no words for it”, said Preston. “I just turned to my friend and said, ‘Oh my god. I can’t believe this’ and I was shaking. It was such an amazing feeling. I know my hard work has paid off and it will be announced .”
Preston registered 460 kills, 148 digs, 42 blocks and 21 aces to earn the Most Valuable Player for the state tournament. She earned First Team All-State and First Team All-American honors. St. Henry also won the All “A” State Tournament in September.
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Kaiser pointed out that Preston is part of a fraught team. The senior setter Cora Taylor
committed to Butler University and libero Abby Schaefer is committed to Western Kentucky University. The Crusaders have two sophomores ranked in the top 150 by Prep Volleyball. Outside batter/center batter Alivia Skidmore
is in 14th placee and defensive specialist Elizabeth Tabling is ranked 150e.
“She’s just athletic, smart. In fact, she’s offensively aggressive from behind the three-meter line and I think that’s why she scored a lot of looks overall.” said Keizer. “She just doesn’t hit out of the three revolutions up front. She is an offensive threat at all times with six rotations. She is certainly a unique athlete. She has the physique, the talent, the mentality and the skills. She’s a maid.”
The award recognizes not only athletic talent, but also solid academic achievement and character on and off the field. Preston has an average of 3.97 points on a 4.0 scale. Preston also took on the role of student ambassador to St. Henry, volunteering locally at the Boonespring Nursing Home and local youth volleyball programs.
Preston said she plans to study Business in Oklahoma. She knows that in her first year she will have to sit at study tables.
“That’s something that’s super important to me,” said Preston. “It ensures that as a student-athlete I am on top of my work in the classroom. I certainly worked hard to keep that up.”
Kaiser and Preston pointed to the end of 2020 as the start of the state title journey. The Crusaders had their battles with Coronavirus 2019. St. Henry lost to Dixie Heights as a junior varsity in the 34e District title game before Preston and others could come back in the 9e Quarter-finals region. St. Henry lost in three games to eventual state champion Notre Dame.
St. Henry finished the year 36-8 overall. The Crusaders lost four games of out-of-state competition, twice to Louisville Sacred Heart and once to Louisville Assumption. The only region loss came against Ryle.
“It just stayed with us”, said Preston. “We just knew this was going to be a year. We were going to prove it and we certainly did.”
But the Crusaders defeated Notre Dame in both the regular season and 9e Region championship game. St. Henry lost only two games of the nine postseason games. The first came against Notre Dame in the regional title match and the second came in the state semifinals against Sacred Heart.
Kaiser listed several things it took to win a state championship. That’s a good coaching staff, talented players with mental composure and some history.
“When you put on the uniform, I try to tell the kids, ‘You’re not just playing for you.’ You’ve got St. Henry on your back,’ said Keizer. “We have been around for a long time. You represent me, your school, your students. I will say that the student population played a big part. When I look back at some part of the Sacred Heart tape, the amount of support and enthusiasm we had in that gym, I’d give them two points for almost every game.
The third time against Sacred Heart ended up being the charm when it mattered most. Preston couldn’t express how much the state title meant to Kaiser. Kaiser was a freshman when St. Henry won his other state championship in 1981.
Kaiser just got her 30. roundede season as head coach of the Crusaders. St. Henry finished second to Assumption in 2005 and 2006.
“It’s just incredible to look back on honestly. Because it’s been so long since they’ve won a state championship, I’m thinking about it now, it just makes it that much more special,”
said Preston. “To think that I was part of that is just amazing. I am so grateful for it and also to be coached by Maureen. She has helped me so much over the years. I wanted to make a statement when I left St. Henry and I think looking back now I did. It’s so much to literally understand that we won the state. It’s cool to think about.”
Preston registered 27 kills on 63 attempts with only eight errors for a 0.302 batting percentage in the semifinal game against Sacred Heart. She also had eight digs and one solo block. St. Henry lost the first game by a tight 25-23 score. The Crusaders came back and won the second game, 25-11, before winning two tight matches, 26-24 and 27-25.
St. Henry had to overcome the challenge of playing two state tournaments on the same day. The semifinals at George Rogers Clark High started at 10am and the state championship match took place at 7pm
“When we went in, we knew that (Sacred Heart) was probably going to be the hardest game and that’s what really motivated us to play the best we could,” said Preston. “After we won that game, we were pretty confident, but not too confident. We had a huge break in between and we liked to re-energize, eat and just relax a bit. We made a game plan to play to your heart’s content and that’s exactly what we did.”
St. Henry faced a team of Mercy Jaguars that had finished second in the past four seasons. But Preston made a phenomenal 25 kills on 44 attempts with just four errors for a .477 success rate. Preston also had four digs, one solo and one assisted block. Taylor had 42 assists.
“The last game, especially as a senior who went, I knew I had to give everything I could. I couldn’t be happier with the way I played and that feeling of just killing, after killing, after killing, after killing. It was just a great feeling to do that with my teammates.” said Preston. “I have one of the best setters I could wish for, who gave me dimes all the time.”
Preston and her teammates know Kaiser, and the assistants aren’t afraid to hold them accountable. But as a result, a championship environment has been built in St. Henry.
“She helped me to have such a positive attitude”, Preston said about Kaiser. “Of course you make a lot of mistakes in volleyball. That’s the whole point of the game. I will make mistakes and I will just sit in my head. I think one thing that’s so special is that she helped me let it go. She really helped me to know that I am that player on the pitch and that I have to be there for my team. In the past year she has brought together so many teams. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons we won, because we played for each other. She set it up for us. We felt like such a family. That is something that will always have a place in my heart.”
Preston will be working on improving her all-round game for the Northern Kentucky Volleyball Club this spring. Preston has played center blocker and winger in her volleyball career. But she will mostly play outside hitter in Oklahoma. She enjoys meeting and playing against other players from all over the country in club volleyball.
“In the club you play so much more competitively because you play against players from all over the country”, said Preston. “I think that really helps build up mentally because when they play in some games they have such good players. You know you have to be mentally strong to go in, just be confident and don’t play to a lower level It makes me want to play harder because I want to go out and beat them.”
Preston will try to help the Sooners return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2019 when they finished 19-9, including an 11-5 mark in Big 12 play. That team lost to Rice 3-0 (25-18, 25-22, 25-19) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma finished 10-17 last season with a 4-12 in Big 12 action.