Last year, the Golden Eagles finished Class 4A state runner-up, and that was after returning only two players from the previous season. Now, they return every player back except for one from that squad of a year ago, and that has created some high expectations.
“For them, I think they feel like since they were in the finals last year, the natural expectations since we didn’t lose much are to win it,” Clark said before Wednesday's practice. “I don’t mind that being the expectations, but there’s a lot of work between here and there. What you have to be careful of is to not apply too much of that now and realize this is a process.
“We’ll get there eventually and play as well as we can at the end, but when you add expectations it adds pressure. I’ve seen a little bit of that with them even early this year.”
The Golden Eagles have been “up and down,” Clark said, while working their way into the season. They’re sitting at 6-2 after the first week of matches. Clark has used a wide variety of players who he felt practiced hard enough to get playing time.
“We have a week off right now, and I’ve been giving a lot of kids an opportunity to play and we’re going to start narrowing that field a little bit,” he said. “I think rotating a lot has hurt our consistency, so we’ll use this week to do a few things and move some people.”
Experience should play the biggest role for Jacksonville, as seven of the team’s 13 players are seniors. That includes two of the team’s top leaders -- outside hitter Katie Neisler, who has played varsity since eighth grade, and libero Ariel Diaz.
“They feel like they should do well,” Clark said. “I don’t think to this point we’ve really played to the level we will, even though we have at times, but I think we’ll smooth out and get where we need to be. There’s always a transitional period.”
The Golden Eagles’ lone loss from the 2012 team was Mallory Haynes, an important cog in the squad’s success, but Clark has received a huge addition as Sacred Heart star Blessing Dunn has transferred to Jacksonville.
“Seeing all banners and stuff in the gym I immediately knew what the expectations are,” Dunn said. “One of our goals is to win state. I want to be a champion.”
Neisler said the 2013 team has players with equal roles, which makes things a lot easier. She added the team’s offensive attack is the strength of the unit, while the defense still has some work to do.
While it is still early, Clark’s first priority is having his team ready to play by the time Class 4A, Area 11 play rolls around.
However, for a team that’s been to the Class 4A state tournament every year for the last decade, winning the area is just the beginning.
“We have to get up to that point and work out to that point. Everything up to that is just practice,” Neisler said. “Ultimately, the goal is to win state.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star