Calhoun County came into the AHSAA’s Elite Eight state volleyball finals three deep with Donoho, Pleasant Valley and Jacksonville all vying to add yet another state title to the area’s rich tradition in the sport.
Jacksonville and Donoho were eliminated in the semifinals, leaving a county that is home to 16 past state champions with Pleasant Valley as its lone hope for a 17th today, the second and final day of the competition when the title matches will be played at the Pelham Civic Complex.
The Lady Raiders came back after dropping their first game to defeat Providence Christian 3-2, winning 12-25, 26-24, 19-25, 25-23, 15-12.
“They just really wanted it,” said Pleasant Valley coach Dana Bryant of her team. “They just really wanted it. They decided they weren’t going down.”
Pleasant Valley (38-14) will face Cottage Hill Christian (41-13) in the Class 2A final today at 4:30 p.m. for the opportunity to earn what could be the school’s sixth state title and first since 1996. The Lady Wildcats defeated Lexington and Westminster Christian to advance.
Middle hitter Jessie Kate Stewart led Pleasant Valley with 26 kills and 29 digs — both team highs — to go along with a block and an assist. Payton Lewis had 15 kills. Jessica Boozer had eight kills, two blocks, two digs and an assist. Megan Strickland had 26 digs and Morgan Smith added 18 digs. Setter Ashley Bryant had seven kills and 46 assists.
Elizabeth Dowd led Providence Christian with 20 kills followed by Whitney DeVane with 10.
Jacksonville’s 3-2 loss to Brooks in the Class 4A state volleyball tournament might’ve been the most shocking outcome for some. However, it was the type of breakdown the longtime coach thought his young team might be susceptible to all season.
The Lady Golden Eagles (44-11), who had played the in the state championship game in each of the past four seasons and winning titles in 2008 and 2009, looked as if they were undoubtedly headed for a fifth in the early goings against the Lady Lions.
They went up 2-0 before ultimately falling 25-18, 25-16, 18-25, 23-25, 15-13.
“We’ve had some issues from time to time this season with getting ahead and then dropping games,” said longtime Jacksonville coach David Clark. “It was the same deal today and it wound up costing us. We had leads in all three of the last games and some of them were pretty good leads.”
Jacksonville was two points away from winning the match in the fourth game and had a 5-1 lead in the fifth but couldn’t seal the deal in part due to the solid play of Brooks’ hitters Jessi Blackstock, often, and Kaitlyn Wilson late.
Blackstock, a 6-foot middle hitter, led the Lady Lions (58-9) with 25 kills and 23 digs while the 6”2’ Wilson, who plays outside, added seven kills behind Olivia Bauman’s 12.
Katie Neisler anchored Jacksonville with 15 kills, eight blocks and six digs followed by Lana Bell’s 13 kills and 29 digs. Haley Jackson finished with 11 kills, 11 blocks and eight digs. Allender Doggett had eight kills and 14 digs and Nicole Penny registered 40 assists.
“With this group sometimes I think the worst that can happen to them is going up 2-0. But that’s just part of being young. They’ve got a lot of seniors and we’ve got a lot of juniors. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good players. When you get to a certain point, kids expect things. When you reach that point where they’re beyond believing they can do certain things, it makes it a little easier (as a coach).
Addison (58-3), down from 2A after winning the state title a year ago, defeated Donoho 25-13, 25-16, 25-10.
The Lady Falcons (40-16) hung tough in the match’s early going, holding the lead at 3-1 in Game 1 and tying it at 9. But then the Lady Bulldogs won 16 of the last 20 points, including 10 straight to close the game.
Donoho never fully recovered.
“We talked a lot about being prepared because we played them twice before,” Donoho coach Janice Slay said. “We knew we had to raise our level of play. They’re just really, really good. They’re the best serving team we’ve played all year.”
Grace Fink led Donoho with five kills and seven digs. Rachel Matson had two kills, three digs and three blocks.
Kaitlin Parker (15 kills), Morgan Ray (13 kills) and Sadie Beam paced the Lady Bulldogs.
“Last year, we made the first step of getting here,” Slay said. “One of the things I wanted to do was take one more step every year.”
Regardless of what happened this season, it might be a safe bet to go ahead and pencil Donoho and Jacksonville in for next year.
While no coach wants a guarantee like that for fear of a team getting lackadaisical, you can’t ignore the sheer amount of underclassmen on the two squads.
The Lady Falcons are without a senior and have six juniors, while Jacksonville has one senior, but nine juniors.
In contrast, the core of Pleasant Valley’s squad is seniors with five of their 15 players it brought to the tournament.
“It feels really good to be back where Pleasant Valley is known for being,” said Bryant, a standout for the Lady Raiders in her playing days under the legendary Sandy Hunter.
Nick Birdsong covers sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.
Pleasant Valley 3, Isabella 0 — Stewart led the Lady Raiders with 13 kills as they swept Isabella to earn a spot in Wednesday night’s state semifinals match. The Lady Raiders used a 7-2 spurt to close out Game 1 25-19. They won Game 2 25-21 then pulled away from a game Isabella squad that looked to make a match of it in the waning stages of Game 3, taking the game 25-22 behind Bryant’s heady play, taking the final game 25-22.
Lewis finished with nine kills and four blocks while Boozer added eight kills. Smith logged eight digs for the match.