The Jacksonville Lady Eagles consistently make their mark in the world of high school volleyball, which consequently makes them a marked team. This season is no different. After winning the Class 4A state championship last year, this year’s team will have a big target on their backs every time they take the court.
For Head Coach David Clark being a marked team is nothing new. The unassuming, laid–back, down-to-earth coach is in his 22nd year of coaching at Jacksonville, and has taken his team to the playoffs an astounding 19 years.
From 2007-2013 Clark and his Lady Eagles have won six state titles, two of those wins came back-to-back in 2007-2008.
One consistent factor of those wins was that with each of the championships, a Neisler sister was involved. Clark has had a Neisler on his roster since 2005, starting with Elizabeth, then Caroline and finally Katie.
Having sisters on his team is something that Clark has become accustomed to. First it was the Tippets sisters (Michelle and Melissa), then the Bells (Leah and Lana) the Neislers (Elizabeth, Caroline and Katie) and the Stallings (Halee and currently Reagan) and Clark feels having had these sisters has been a definite advantage.
“The younger sibling has been dragged along from court to court to watch their older sister play, so that by the time they got ready to play they understood things that others didn’t quite understand. It feels different to me that after Reagan Stallings I really don’t see any more sisters coming up, but that’s just the way it is. I ‘ve had to come to terms with no more sisters and move on to what is next.”
What’s next for Clark is what he feels is the most athletic team he has ever put on the court. “I think this is a group that the longer the point goes the better they will handle it. In the past we had to have quicker points to be successful. If we can play fast, the longer points won’t bother this bunch. This group has a chance to play really, really fast; that’s how athletic they are. However, with speed comes mistakes so we’ll see.”
The girls won the Middle Tennessee team camp this year which Clark said was an important part in building confidence, learning how to play together and to be successful. “It was a big step with a group that has a lot of new parts,” said Clark. “It was important that we did well at camp.”
Clark has five seniors on his squad this year, Ashley Clingan, Tamaria Mays, Blessing Dunn, Mallory Patterson and Ashton Gaddy. Juniors Haley Holtbrooks, a transfer from Alexandria, Jazzmyn McClendon, Nicole Goodman, Brandi Canady and Darrien Martin and sophomores Sierra Stone and Reagan Stallings make up the rest of the team.
Clark expects that teams will key on Blessing Dunn. Dunn transferred to Jacksonville before the season last year and was a major contributor to the Lady Eagles winning the state championship, which awarded her All-State honors.
“Blessing will assume a bigger role for us this year,” said Clark of the outside hitter. She has made great strides over the summer. I think a lot of people know Blessing and that she’ll draw a lot of attention.”
Another outside hitter will be Darrien Martin and Tamaria Mays will be back in the middle. Mays has started since the ninth grade. The other middle position will go to Sierra Stone, a sophomore with no varsity experience. “Sierra is a young player and could be one that people end up taking notice of once she gets acclimated to the speed of what we’re doing. She had a really good camp,” said Clark.
Playing on the right side will be senior Mallory Patterson, another person that Clark feels has a chance to really make a name for herself. Both Stone and Patterson bring a good deal of height to the Lady Eagles team.
Setting this year will be Ashley Clingan, a senior with a lot of experience and leadership ability. Clingan set for half the rotations last year but Clark expects her to be in on all the rotations this season.
Stallings will assume the role of back up setter and defensive specialist competing with Holtbrooks for libero.
Clark said that there are spots that he isn’t 100 per cent sure of. “I like this group because in many areas there’s not a lot of separation between them and it keeps it competitive. They realize that if they don’t come and work hard everyday there’s someone ready to step in; it’s really competitive and makes you work hard everyday.”
Jacksonville will be in a different area this year with White Plains and Saks, who both moved up from 3A, and Heflin who was in a different area last year.
Clark expects that the area will be competitive.
There has also been a major change in the teams that have been major opponents of Jacksonville over the years. Guntersville, who the Lady Eagles battled for the state championship last year, has moved to 5A, as has Madison County and Alexandria. Over half of the teams that made it to the 4A semifinals last year are in different classifications this year. Only St. James and Jacksonville remain in 4A.
Clark says he has been more worried about his team and hasn’t really looked across the state to see who is where. “I don’t know if it will be easier or harder,” admitted Clark, “it’s just hard to tell.”
Clark is excited to start the season with his team. “I like this group,” said Clark. “This team is more balanced than last year. There’s no dominant person. It’s exciting. This group has a lot of fun.”
The Lady Eagles will start their season at home on August 28 against Boaz.