Jacksonville entered the high school volleyball season with talk of a 4A state championship, after the Golden Eagles lost one player from its 2012 state runner-up team. Meanwhile, Donoho was thinking the same thing at the 1A level. Even though the Falcons returned only three starters, they had won the past two state championships in their classification.
Fittingly, the turning point for Donoho’s season came against Jacksonville.
The Falcons defeated Jacksonville 24-26, 25-18, 15-10 in Pleasant Valley on Sept. 10 and have been playing typical Donoho volleyball since then.
With Jacksonville winning the next two meetings over Donoho, their matchups always are close, and the outcome is never predictable.
But the rivalry ends at the conclusion of the regular season.
After that, each team cheers for the other, as both sides claim the intensity of their rivalry has made them stronger for the competition they see at the state tournament.
“Hopefully, we’ve prepared each other for this situation,” Jacksonville coach David Clark said. “I think the stronger the county is, the better it is for all of us. We don’t have to travel far to play good teams.”
The state tournament starts Wednesday at Birmingham’s CrossPlex with quarterfinal matches.
“The dream is alive. We’re going to be pushing really hard to see if we can make it happen,” Donoho coach Janice Slay said.
Jacksonville has made the state tournament every season since 2002 and Donoho has made every tournament since 2008, but before they get there, they fight it out for the Calhoun County volleyball tournament, which often is as competitive as the state championships.
In 2007, Jacksonville fell in the finals to Oxford but won the state championship. In 2010, the Falcons didn’t even reach the finals, but went on to win the Class 1A state title a month later.
“That was more of a disappointing year,” Donoho senior Corey Phillis said. “We hosted county and didn’t play Jacksonville the whole year and ended up getting put out by Alexandria in the semifinals. I think it was kind of an upset that we didn’t make it.”
Donoho was able to rebound in 2012 to defeat Jacksonville to win its first county championship since 1993. This season, the Golden Eagles took back the championship, their seventh in nine years.
“It was really big for us,” Jacksonville senior Breanna Hosch said. “We beat them once last year, and they came back to beat us twice. It was nice for us to come back and beat them twice this year.”
Having the two high-caliber teams playing regularly is part of the season strategy both coaches use, which includes facing good competition.
Jacksonville has plenty of top teams on its schedule, including Guntersville, the team that beat Golden Eagles in the North Super Regional championship match this year.
Donoho hosts a tournament each year, and this year the Falcons brought in five of the other seven teams — Spring Garden, Athens Bible, St. Luke’s, Addison and Meek — that are in the Class 1A state tournament. Addison also has played Donoho in the last two state title matches.
“You have to play a tough schedule,” Clark said. “It helps you prepare for the tougher teams at the top of your classification. If you don’t play a tough schedule and the first time you see a good team is in an elimination situation of the state tournament, it’s hard to adjust.”
While Jacksonville has lived up to expectations to this point, Donoho’s rise began when it defeated the Golden Eagles.
Even though Donoho lost to Jacksonville twice in September, the Falcons have made the necessary improvements to make a move this week at state.
“Up until that night in Pleasant Valley, I wasn’t really sure that we’d progress this far,” Slay said. “Even if that wasn’t a very important match for Jacksonville it was for us. It set a mentality for our kids that showed us there are possibilities for our kids. We’ve built on that.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star