Jacksonville High's volleyball team dedicated its season to Neisler, a former all-state player who died in May. Her former squad wore her initials all season on the left shoulder of their warm-up jackets.
And when the Golden Eagles pulled off a heart-stopping, thrilling comeback for the ages to win the Class 4A state volleyball championship, they made sure to include the memory of Caroline in the celebration.
That especially was true for the tournament’s most valuable player – senior Katie Neisler, Caroline's younger sister and the catalyst for Jacksonville's stunning win.
Jacksonville had failed to beat rival Guntersville all season and trailed the Wildcats two sets to none in Thursday's state finals. The Golden Eagles were one point from losing four different times in the fourth set. It was Katie Neisler's play at the net that keyed Jacksonville's comeback.
And you'll have a hard time convincing anybody at the Birmingham CrossPlex that Caroline – whose old nickname was "Scrappy" – wasn't helping lift her sister and her former team Thursday.
"I felt her there," Katie Neisler said through tears afterward. "I felt her help us."
Caroline Neisler was 21 when she died from complications from acute myeloid leukemia in May. She played volleyball at North Alabama for three seasons before transferring to Samford in December. She did so to be closer to her family.
She was an all-state player at Jacksonville and was part of state championship squads in 2007 and 2008. Elizabeth Neisler, the oldest sister, was the state tournament’s most valuable player on both of those championship teams.
As this season has gone on, Katie Neisler has taken on a little bit of Caroline's strong volleyball personality.
Caroline played mostly on the back row, while the 6-foot-0 Katie plays best at the net. But Katie said Caroline was a strong competitor and was known for hustling all over the court, regardless of what position she was playing. During those last three sets Thursday, that's what Katie was doing, too.
It seemed time after time, it was Neisler delivering a vital kill, especially during that unforgettable fourth set.
"My sister was very strong ... and I know she would want me to be strong, too," Katie said.
The Neisler family moved to Jacksonville in 2003. The Golden Eagles' David Clark coached all three of the Neisler sisters on his varsity team, and when asked about dedicating what turned out to be a championship season to Caroline, he dropped his head slightly. He recalled how he had known Elizabeth, Caroline and Katie since they were small.
"Caroline played for me," he said. "Her sudden passing ... it hurt. It was tough on us as a group."
But his smile returned as he spoke about how Jacksonville's drive and determination in the final three sets mirrored the way Caroline played.
Katie calls Caroline her role model. She even has committed to play at Samford, where Elizabeth played and Caroline transferred to.
It's so obvious that Katie's heart is filled with so much love for her sister. She didn't mind being asked a lot of questions about her – even when they came minutes after winning a state championship.
When offered an apology for having to field such personal questions, Katie smiled and said, "That's OK." Then she offered a hug in return.
Caroline Neisler isn't forgotten.
Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter @MarkSportsStar.