The win was nothing short of a miracle as Jacksonville, losing game one 25-18 and game two 25-14, found something within to come back and win game three 25-18, a wild game four 34-32 and then finally game five 15-12.
Jacksonville head coach David Clark, who has taken his teams to the Elite Eight 16 of his 20 years, said that he feels it was seniors Katie Neisler and Breanna Hosch and junior Blessing Dunn who helped spark the comeback. “Between games two and three, these three kids right here,” said Clark of the girls, “took it upon themselves. It was out of my hands at that point.”
Enough can’t be said of the fight and determination shown by the Lady Eagles. For seven seniors the win was definitely the way they wanted to finish up their volleyball careers at JHS. While it was absolutely a team win, the effort was sparked by senior Katie Neisler.
Neisler, who finished the final match with 24 kills, five blocks and five digs, and was named tournament MVP, was the only daughter in the Neisler family who had not won a state ring as sisters Elizabeth and Caroline had both won rings when the team won back to back state championships in 2007-2008. Katie will now proudly wear a state ring on her finger.
At the beginning of the season Katie had talked about how this year’s team needed to make history of their own. “We have always looked up to the older girls,” said Katie. “Those girls were amazing. They have state rings. We want to live up to that legacy. We want to be like that. We’re trying to come back with a legacy of our own.”
This year’s volleyball team has certainly done that, and more. Teams from here on out will look to the 2013 volleyball team as the pinnacle of what can be achieved when a team doesn’t give up and keeps on fighting.
Guntersville, who had beaten the Lady Eagles twice before during the season, most recently the week before at the Super Regional championship game, came out on the court all smiles, with a knowledge that they had the upper hand. Jacksonville’s girls had on their game faces, not a lot of smiles. After two relatively easy wins Guntersville was almost giddy on the court, and went to work in game three sensing a championship would come their way.
Clark said, “Before we went out for game three I said, “your career is right here, whatever we do from this point forward you will have to fight for.”
With the score tied at 8-8, Jacksonville took the next three points, only to see Guntersville come back to tie it up at 11-11. That’s the last time the score would be tied as Jacksonville went on to win the game 25-18.
Spectators could see the change in Jacksonville. Facing elimination, Neisler seemed to be everywhere on the court, with kills that came down so hard they seemed to have an exclamation point attached to them.
“I went to each of the girls and said we need to take control and put this away,” said Neisler.
Game four was as nerve racking and nail biting as any game has ever been. Guntersville jumped ahead 10-2, and a win certainly seemed on the horizon for the Lady Wildcats. Jacksonville began clawing back and suddenly the Lady Eagles had gone on a 12-5 run and were within one, at 15-14.
The score was tied at 17, and then five other times until a kill by Neisler tied the game at 24-24. Every time Jacksonville took the lead, Guntersville would tie it up. When Guntersville took the lead, the Lady Eagles would bounce back. The game was tied six times and changed hands five times after reaching 25 points until the Lady Eagles pulled the game out at 34-32.
Not enough can be said for the girls on the court, Neisler, Hosch, Dunn, Halee Stallings, Tamaria Mays, Mallory Patterson, Ashley Clingan, Ariel Diaz, and Courtney Bowden for the way they played. They left it all on the court, diving for every ball, going up to attempt blocks, smashing down kills.
On the bench with support and encouragement were Ashton Gaddy, Amber Quinn, Kristen Aguilar and Darrien Martin.
Suddenly it was Jacksonville that was all smiles, and Guntersville showed concern, knowing that momentum had switched to the Lady Eagles.
Guntersville jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the deciding game five before Jacksonville came back to go up 10-6 and then had their largest lead at 12-7 before winning the match and the state title at 15-12.
An elated Clark said after the match that he felt if the team could just get to game five that they could take it.
“There wasn’t anything magical volleyball wise. I just told the girls that we were getting outplayed and making way too many errors. They knew what was going on. We talked about one point, one step at a time, just playing every ball.
“To pick ourselves up and claw and scratch and fight and step up and not accepting that loss, that was all about character,” said Clark. “I had told the girls that it wasn’t about volleyball right now but about putting one foot in front of the other. To have a team respond that way can make a coach just feel tremendous.”
After the game Neisler said she was, “overwhelmed. I don’t know how to explain it, I can’t describe how happy I am.”
Katie, who lost her older sister Caroline in May to leukemia, said that she felt her sister was there with her the whole time at the game. “She was my role model,” said Katie. Nicknamed “Scrappy”, Caroline couldn’t have been more proud of how scrappy her younger sister had played, inspiring the rest of the team to play the same way.
Jacksonville had reached the finals by beating UMS Wright 25-13, 25-14 and 25-20 in the quarterfinals and St. James, 26-24, 25-16, 22-25 and 28-26.
Blessing Dunn, a junior who also made the all-tournament team, had 21 kills against St. James. A transfer from Sacred Heart, Dunn experienced her first Elite Eight. “This has been a lot different than any other tournament,” said Dunn. “The excitement at this level plays a big part in it. It means a lot to be down here to know that all of our hard work has paid off. I’m just blessed.”
From here on out, girls playing volleyball at Jacksonville will have this group of girls to look up to, to pattern their play after. The 2013 Lady Eagles state volleyball champions have left a legacy of their own.