After falling in the first two sets, Jacksonville “clawed, scratched and climbed” back into the match, defeating Guntersville 18-25, 14-25, 25-18, 34-32, 15-12 to win the Class 4A state championship. The Golden Eagles fought off four championship points during the marathon fourth set just to extend the match.
“I told them this was it. This was what they’ve worked for their whole high school career and you’re letting it get away,” Clark said. “They just found something. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if it was heart or desire, but they fought their way back.”
This was the third time this season Guntersville and Jacksonville met. Guntersville won the first two matches, including in the finals of the North Super Regional.
Jacksonville got off to a slow start, losing the first two sets and not taking the lead in the third set until midway through.
Once Jacksonville led 12-11, Katie Neisler, who finished with 24 kills and five blocks, took charge and helped Jacksonville extend its lead to 18-12.
“I went up to all the girls and told them, ‘It’s you, it’s you. You need to take control, put this away and just do what it takes. I believe in you,’” said Neisler, the tournament's most valuable player. “I just kept cheering them on.”
Once Neisler’s teammates joined the charge, the team would cruise to a third-set win, staying alive in the match.
Heading into the fourth set, Clark told his team if it could get to the fifth set the Golden Eagles would win the state championship. However, Clark never imagined the fourth set that would get Jacksonville there.
Jacksonville started the fourth in a 10-2 hole before scoring 12 of the next 17 points to trail 15-14. The Golden Eagles took an 18-17 lead before the score started going and forth — for a while.
A kill by Neisler tied things up 24-24 after Jacksonville had tied things at 23. Jacksonville’s defense and the offensive power of Neisler and Blessing Dunn, who finished with 11 kills and made all-tournament, kept the match going into the 30s before Jacksonville took advantage and won.
“That game is what kind of swung everything,” Clark said. “Volleyball is a lot about momentum—if you can keep it and hang on to it.”
With the momentum, Jacksonville cruised through the fifth set after getting down 4-1 early. The Golden Eagles scored five straight points to take a 9-5 lead. The two teams swapped points until Jacksonville reached 14, needing one more point to win, and Guntersville rattled off four straight points.
A block by the senior Courtney Bowden ended the rally and won the championship.
“There are no words can describe how happy I am,” Neisler said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
After Jacksonville was the state runner-up last year, seniors Kristen Aguilar, Amber Quinn, Breanna Hosch, Halee Stallings, Ariel Diaz, Bowden and Neisler finished their career at Jacksonville with the school's first state volleyball championship since the Golden Eagles won titles back-to-back in 2007 and 2008.
“I sure as heck didn’t want to give the speech another way to seven seniors,” Clark said. “Some of these are sisters are of former players and I’ve known them since they were little kids. We’re all a family. I know a lot of people talk about that, but we are. This is a great, great way for them to end their career.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star