Jacksonville’s 26-24, 25-16, 22-25, 28-26 victory led the Golden Eagles back to the state finals a year after finishing runner-up. As Neisler pointed out, Thursday’s noon match against Guntersville will also be the last chance Jacksonville’s seven seniors have to win a state championship.
“It’s personal for a lot of reasons, but we’re just pumped that we’ve made it there,” Neisler said.
Jacksonville’s match with Guntersville will be its third this season. The Golden Eagles lost the first two, including the finals of the North Super Regional. However, Jacksonville coach David Clark said that doesn’t mean his team isn’t confident going into the match.
“I think at this point when you’re trying to survive and advance, if confidence isn’t at its highest level now, I don’t know how else to get it there,” he said. “I really hope this did that for us. I think we felt like we haven’t given Guntersville our best shot and hopefully we’ll come out and do that.”
After Jacksonville cruised past UMS-Wright in the first round 25-13, 25-15, 25-20, it found itself in a huge battle during the semifinals against St. James.
Jacksonville weathered the storm and got wins the first two games. In the opener, the Golden Eagles bounced back from a 24-23 deficit with a kill by Neisler, a double hit by St. James and an ace by Halee Stallings. The Golden Eagles followed it up with a dominant second game, never trailing.
However, the third game slipped away from Jacksonville. Neisler said the team got “laid back” and by the time Jacksonville woke up, St. James had made its move.
St. James fighting continued into the fourth set, but not until late.
Jacksonville’s 15-11 lead turned into a 17-16 deficit before the Golden Eagles took control of the match, nearly having the victory in hand with a 24-19 lead. That’s when St. James made its next move, scoring the next five points to tie the game 24-24.
After St. James had taken the advantage twice, Neisler had back-to-back kills to give Jacksonville a 27-26 lead. An illegal contact call was made on the next volley, sealing Jacksonville’s victory.
"I think our schedule and being in tough matches really, really paid off today,” Jacksonville coach David Clark said. “We were inconsistent at time, but that’s what the other team can make happen. It was kind of just back and forth and came down to a few swings.
“There are a lot of people that get a coach a long time that don’t get these opportunities. I just love these kids and appreciate what they do and the work they put in. We had to dig in that match. We were tired, they were tired, had some tough calls to swallow, but that’s part of the game.”
Blessing Dunn finished with a team-high 21 kills. Neisler had 17 kills and 10 digs. Tamaria Mays and Stallings had 11 and 10 kills, respectively.
Brandon Miller is the preps writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or on Twitter @bmiller_star.