With a 38-14 record, the Lady Eagles were the Area 11 undefeated champions, the 4A Super Regional runner-up and then after a miraculous comeback, the 4A state champions.
Of the 14 losses, eight of those came to 5A and 6A teams. Three losses came to 4A teams, two to Guntersville and one to Brentwood, TN, ranked No. 10 in the nation at the time.
The Jacksonville High School girls volleyball team has had time now to sit back and reflect on their state championship and the season leading up to it. Some of the players, and Head Coach David Clark, shared some of their thoughts, beginning with camp held in the summer.
In the past, Jacksonville has been able to hold its own at the camp at Middle Tennessee State, often coming out on top. This year, the girls were missing senior Katie Neisler, who was playing at a national beach volleyball tournament, and new player, Blessing Dunn, a transfer from Sacred Heart.
Senior Ariel Diaz remembers that camp didn’t leave the best memory. “Our team camp sticks out to me because it was so bad. I was like, ‘how can we be this horrible with as much talent as we had. How far are we really going to go and how are we going to turn this around in a few months,” recalled Diaz. While the camp wasn’t the experience she had hoped for, she quickly adds, “but we ended up where we wanted to be.”
The addition of Blessing Dunn was, well, a blessing. Senior Breanna Hosch recalls, “At the beginning of the season we didn’t have Blessing and we started playing like we did last year. When Blessing came we really got that extra push. We became a whole lot better; she helped us become a whole lot better.”
Dunn, a junior, instantly felt at home on the team. “Most definitely I felt welcomed when I first came in,” said Blessing. “Everyone came up to me and started speaking to me. I felt like they had already put me as part of the team. I am really awkward and to know that they really accepted me quickly and helped me with everything…it was a good feeling.”
Dunn was named to the state All-Tournament team.
Even though the camp in summer might have been a bit rocky, Coach Clark never doubted his team. “I thought we always had enough ability,” said Clark. “I thought the talent was always there. There were times I was concerned with our level of play. I’m big on everyone doing their own job and having a clean game.
“Once I realized our strengths and weaknesses and started moving towards up playing our strengths and working on our weaknesses I think everyone got more comfortable with what we were doing.”
During the regular season Coach Clark scheduled many tournaments where the girls would be challenged by playing strong 5A and 6A teams. Most coaches will tell you that playing a stronger team only helps you to become better. Despite not winning any of those tournaments, the girls didn’t get discouraged.
“In the regular season I never thought that we didn’t have a chance in the tournaments where we played bigger teams,” said Hosch. “Those are the ones that we ended up losing, were the big tournaments.
“It made me feel good that we could play with them. They play club most of the year and we hung with most of them.”
Senior Halee Stallings added, “Playing the bigger teams helped us out a lot, building our confidence. We realized that we could play with teams that were that size.”
Some of the games that stuck out to members of the team were Donoho and Oneonta during the regular season. Donoho was one of the smaller schools to have beaten the Lady Eagles during the season and had also beat them in the championship game of the county tournament the previous year.
“Our Oneonta game stuck out,” recalls Diaz. “That was the most crazy environment. It was more like playing in the state tournament and it prepared us for when we got there.” Stallings added, “Oneonta was one of the best games we played together.”
Beating Donoho was one of the things the seniors really wanted. They wanted to bring the county championship back to Jacksonville. Dunn lists the Donoho game as one of her top memories. “The Donoho game at county showed that we could persevere and were determined. That was a big game.”
By far post season will leave the most lasting impression on this championship team. Katie Neisler, named All-State Most Valuable Player, says her first post-season memory came at Super Regionals. “At Regionals we would all get together and talk,” said Neisler. We would talk about state and of course Guntersville and wanting to play them. We would goof off and play games in the hotel room…those kind of memories will stay.”
Senior Courtney Bowden says her memory will be going to Coach Clarks house for dinner before the state tournament. “I think we were the first team to go to his house and we really bonded that night.”
Of course the state tournament itself will never be forgotten. Down two games to Guntersville, who had already beaten the Lady Eagles twice during the season, the Lady Eagles bounced back winning three straight games to claim the state trophy.
“I really don’t know when there was a defining moment,” said Neisler of the miraculous comeback. “There was one point when Ariel (Diaz) got a really big dig and one block by Blessing (Dunn) that got us going. We got so excited, we got so pumped!
“We had a talk, Courtney and me, between games about how we were about to lose and we needed to get it together.”
Bowden added, “I remember looking at the seniors saying, ‘Do you really want to go out losing three games to Guntersville as your last memory?’ and we challenged ourselves to push ourselves. I asked them if they wanted to be state champions or do you want that red trophy (runner-up) coming back to Jacksonville?
“Katie is a big hitter and I knew she would get the job done so I was always looking to pass it to Katie.”
There are more memories the team will take with them, like the traditional toilet papering of Clarks house after the state win, even in the rain, or of talks that helped with bonding.
Hosch says she will remember that Rick Carter, principal of the high school, went out of his way to make the girls feel special with a sendoff and a charter bus. The girls also enjoyed a police escort and victory lap around the square.
The girls are enjoying celebrity status, “It’s nice,” said Diaz, “it’s different, I’m treated like a mini-celebrity, it’s pretty cool.”
From this season the girls will take away a sense of accomplishment, knowing that they were picked to win the state championship and they worked hard and never gave up to make that happen. It’s a feeling that will last forever.