Highlands Hires Northern Kentucky Native To Take Over Volleyball Program

Woods enthusiastic about facilities and traditions in Highlands

Contributed photo. New Highlands Volleyball Head Coach Michelle Woods (right) holds the 2020 Ohio Division III District Tournament Championship Trophy with assistant Kat Sickinger (left). Woods spent the last two seasons as head coach at Cincinnati McNicholas and led the Rockets to consecutive district tournament championships. Woods is a 2009 Newport Central Catholic alum and also played collegiately on Mount Saint Joseph.

Current players may not know Michelle Woods.

But she’s a household name in the Northern Kentucky high school volleyball realm. Highlands Director of Athletics Wes Caldwell said her experience and knowledge of the game stood out in the decision to make her the next head coach of the Highlands Bluebirds volleyball program.

“She’s a great in-game coach,”
said Caldwell. “She is very good at the learning mode that we will need for years to come as the younger kids make that transition to the varsity level. We are excited to have her on board and look forward to her interacting with the kids. We are looking forward to a great season and a great low season.”

Woods, a leather specialist at the University of Cincinnati, grew up in Northern Kentucky. She graduated from Newport Central Catholic in 2009 and helped the Thoroughbreds to the first three of six consecutive region crowns in the old 10th region alignment and played the libero role. NewCath raced her senior year to the state semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Louisville Mercy. Her senior year was her last year under longtime Head Coach Jenny Mertle.

Woods described how Mertle made the difficult decision to bring Kaela Freppon, Alyx Schulte and her up to varsity as a freshman in 2005. But it paid off.

‘I’ve known her all my life’ Woods said about Mertle. “She approached it because it’s a general experience. We had assistants who got into more aggressive things. She wanted to be successful. I know it was hard for her. But she had to see the vision of the program. We had a my last ran great for the year and that’s what Mertle was doing.”

Woods was the head volleyball coach at Cincinnati McNicholas for the past two seasons. The Rockets teamed up to finish those two years 29-21, winning consecutive Division III District Tournament championships. That’s comparable to winning regional crowns in Kentucky. Division III is the second smallest of four classes in Ohio.

“I honestly wanted to go back to Kentucky and be a little closer to home,” said Bos. “I needed a little change. Even though there are some similarities, there are differences between Kentucky and Ohio volleyball in the way things are. Northern Kentucky is kind of small. Once you grow up, you kind of know everyone and everyone in the volleyball community. Once I saw that open up, I wanted to give it a shot because Highlands has a rich culture in sports and academics. I’m a big student-athlete promoter.”

Before taking over the program at McNicholas, Woods was the junior varsity coach there. She also served as a varsity assistant at Summit Country Day and coached softball at Villa Madonna. She went to primary school in Villa Madonna when her father Michael was the director of athletics.

Woods played collegiately at Mount Saint Joseph and helped the Lions to Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament crowns and appearances in the NCAA Division III Tournament as a sophomore and senior. She played there Defensive Specialist under Head Coach Jon Bennett and served as captain. The Lions tied Transylvania University for the regular-season crowns in 2012 and 2010, ending in a five-time draw for the regular-season crown in Woods’ junior year in 2011.

Woods finished her career with 1,271 career digs. It ranks eighth in school history.

“I like to be really loud, excited and in the game. I will honestly run through a wall for a ball. I still play with my friends. We play competitively”, said Bos. “There I fell in love with the game again and started coaching because (Bennett) challenged me. I had to step back and say, ‘What is my role on this team?’ Then I had to work with it a bit. He built that hard mentality for me and that hard work ethic. I like to have fun. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s all about the experience. We’re going to get the job done. We We’re going to win and then we can have fun.”

Woods couldn’t say enough about the community’s support, even 48 hours after the school named its head coach. Woods has already spoken to Mandy Gessner, who helped start the Little Birds volleyball program and the Highlands Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Aaron Letinskyi.

Woods mentioned a goal of making volleyball fun, not overwhelming, in the Little Birds program. She has experience coaching high school students and will conduct a weekly pre-season clinic starting on Saturday. Woods also hopes the high school players will show up in high school and make them feel welcome.

The size of the Highlands Fieldhouse impressed her. She had to do endurance training at previous schools and said it was difficult to find time for 12 teams to train in small weight rooms. She is happy that the players receive training that is specific to volleyball.

“Can’t wait to take advantage of all there is in Highlands,” said Bos. “Being new, I want to make sure I’m doing the right things. I have my coaching style and things like that. But I want to make sure I’m not on my toes.”

Highlands graduates nine seniors from last year’s team that finished 28-8, including four-year starter CC Shik, who is committed to Hanover College, Indiana. But Woods experienced that with McNicholas. She noted that every player is different.

“Of course the coaching style will be different when I get there. They’re probably a little nervous. But I’m going to meet the girls and hopefully I’ll go to the weight room and the gym to make them feel comfortable around me,” said Bos. “That way they can feel more comfortable on the pitch. I’m going to challenge them. But I also have to realize that they are younger. But I think as long as they are enthusiastic and want to put in everything they are going to perform how well the technical staff wants.”

Highlands has won five consecutive 36th District Tournament Championships under former Head Coach Katelyn Sallee. The Bluebirds defeated Dixie Heights in the Quarterfinals of the 9th Region in 2017 and 2019 before losing to Notre Dame in the semifinals. Woods will meet the returning players on Friday and Sallee on the weekend.

Two juniors played in at least 31 games last year. They are setters Kenzi Vennefron and outside batter Emma Daly. The Bluebirds sometimes put two setters on the field last year with Vennefron and Madison Opitz. Vennefron had 388 assists and 32 assists last year and Daly recorded 44 kills, 14 digs, five solo blocks and three assisted blocks.

“I think she has a very distinguished background in volleyball and I think it will grow our program in a good way. I’m just excited to start working with her,” said Daly. “Our aim is to use what we have learned from those players from the past and apply in the coming seasons with our new coach.”

Woods is well aware that the last two state champions come from the 9th region. St. Henry won it last year and Notre Dame won it in 2020.

Ryle and Cooper were close behind those two, but failed to break through in the regional tournament. Ryle defeated Notre Dame and St. Henry during the regular season last year before losing to Notre Dame in the region’s semifinals. That was the first time in school history that Ryle beat Notre Dame. Dixie Height has also been in that group for the past few years.

“I think the competitiveness in Northern Kentucky is there and I think it’s only going to get better. It’s starting in the off-season,” said Bos. “Hopefully we’re going to get this ball rolling quickly so we can at least give ourselves a chance to compete with these teams and hopefully if it’s a regular season and hopefully in a tournament. It’s not about who has the longest “Of course, that’s an advantage. We have to be in the best shape and make sure we approach the season in the right way. We have some time to do that.”

Woods will begin assembling a staff in a week or two. She said there is a lot of interest in the assistant and high school positions.

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