Hard to believe now, but the fifth-ranked Golden Eagles (30-4) were the unranked Golden Eagles until the first poll of 2012, dated Jan. 5. As late as the Dec. 15 poll, the last before Christmas break, they didn’t receive votes.
It’s all filed away now that the season has played itself down to the last game, and Jacksonville will face No. 6 Andalusia (30-2) today at noon in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex, but one carrot still dangles.
The Golden Eagles can win not only a state title today, but they can become the first girls’ basketball team from Calhoun County to do it.
“It’s crazy,” junior forward Sharon Osterbind said. “It’s awesome that we have this opportunity.”
Not only can Jacksonville become the first school from Calhoun County to win a state title in girls’ basketball, but the Golden Eagles are only the second to reach the title game.
Meanwhile, Calhoun County-based schools have flourished in other true team sports on the state level. Six schools have combined for 22 state volleyball championships, led by Donoho with nine. In softball, Alexandria (fast pitch) and Pleasant Valley (slow pitch) have combined for 10 titles, and Pleasant Valley has nine.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association first sanctioned a girls’ state tournament in 1978. Under the current format, teams that reach the semifinals in their classification advance to Birmingham.
Precious few girls’ teams from Calhoun County have advanced as far as the state semifinals. Anniston got there in 2006 and 2009, Donoho in 1995, Jacksonville in 1997 and this year and Weaver in 2001.
In 2009, Anniston became the first to break through to the finals by beating Andalusia. That Anniston team had forward Tacouya Allen as its featured scorer, Darice Bowie as a constant fast-break threat and Ashley Gray as a 3-point shooter.
The Bulldogs were most known for their aggressive, ball-hawking defense. They amassed 15 steals in a semifinal victory over Andalusia.
“We had some girls on that team that were warriors,” Anniston coach Eddie Bullock said. “That team had a lot of toughness.”
Problem was, the Bulldogs ran up against a Midfield team that was going for its third consecutive state title and returned much of its roster from the previous year. Midfield won, 41-32, in the final.
The current Jacksonville team, which beat Midfield in Wednesday’s 4A semifinals, will take its best title shot today.
“I’ve been dreaming of this ever since I’ve been in elementary school,” senior point guard Lacey Buchanon said. “My sister played basketball. I know a lot of good players that’s played, as well.
“I’ve just been dreaming of it and hoping that, when I get in high school, that I have a chance to go this far.”
This Jacksonville team has inside-out game.
Osterbind, also a star on Jacksonville’s soccer team, is one of the most athletic post players around. Because she can get out on the break, jump, catch the ball in traffic and convert, Jacksonville coach Ryan Chambless likens her to a wide receiver in football.
Chambless calls power forward Kenyatta Ervin his most improved player this season. She’s strong on the boards and around the basket and also catches and converts well.
Buchanon, who will play college ball for Samford, is one of the state’s top point guards. She leads the team in scoring but showed against Midfield she can be equally effective in games where things flow more to other players, dishing out six assists.
She also showed leadership, resisting the competitive urge to go score-happy in a game that saw her most immediate competition, Midfield point guard and Alabama signee Jasmine Steele, take 42 shots.
Freshman Virginia Poe delivers a 3-point shooting threat when opponents hang too close to the lane to crowd the driving Buchanon and Jacksonville’s post players.
The Golden Eagles have depth and showed against Midfield they can handle the state’s biggest stage. They hardly looked like a team that hadn’t been there in 15 years.
“It doesn’t surprise us at all,” Buchanon said. “It just takes a group of people to want it and to work hard to get there, and we have. We’ve put in the effort all season long, and I just think we deserve it.”
To bring home the prize, Jacksonville must beat an Andalusia team that beat top-ranked Good Hope in the semifinals.
Then again, Jacksonville wound up the survivor out of a Northeast Regional bracket that included No. 2 Oneonta, No. 3 Anniston and Springville, which upset No. 9 DAR in the sub-regional. Jacksonville beat Springville in the semifinals then Oneonta in the final.
Bullock, whose team played Jacksonville four times this season, said he expects the Golden Eagles to win.
“I think they match up well with Andalusia,” he said, “and I’ve said for a while that I thought the team that came out of the Northeast Regional would win it this year.”
The Golden Eagles have spent this season answering the question, why not Jacksonville? So, why couldn’t Jacksonville become the first girls’ hoops team from Calhoun County to bring home the blue trophy?
“That would be very special to these girls, no doubt,” Chambless said. “That’s something they could also be very proud of, but they have the opportunity. They need to just be proud of that.
“I’m just proud of them, the way they play.”
Joe Medley: 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.