In the nineteen years that Clark has been guiding the Lady Eagles volleyball team, he has taken them to the Elite Eight 16 times. That is an incredible record, made even more incredible this year because of the fact that Clark had only two returning players from his team last year.
The Lady Eagles worked their way to 4A North Super Regional runner-up in Huntsville on Saturday for the right to move on to the Elite Eight.
The venue for the Elite Eight has changed this year to the Birmingham Crossplex. Jacksonville will take on UMS-Wright at 1 pm on Wednesday with the winner advancing to the semi-finals against the winner of Alabama Christian and Randolph at 7 pm Wednesday night. Finals will be Thursday at 3 pm.
The Lady Eagles (36-17) area champions, started the Super Regionals against Priceville, coming out timid and taking a 23-25 first game loss. Jacksonville rebounded and got back into their winning ways winning the next three 25-13, 25-11 and 25-20 to advance to Saturday’s game against Wilson.
In the new format this year, which did away with sub-state, teams had to win the first two matches to advance. A loss would end their season.
Jacksonville had a formidable foe in Wilson. At the end of the season rankings, Wilson was ranked No.4 in the state, Jacksonville No.6.
The Lady Eagles started off the first set with a win 25-18, but Wilson rebounded taking a close game that saw many lead changes, 21-25. The third set was no different as neither team could put away their opponent and both teams stayed close. Jacksonville finally pulled away for a 25-22 win.
The fourth set of the best of five match saw the Lady Eagles go down in defeat 11-25 forcing the fifth and deciding set.
The Lady Eagles came out strong, maintaining a two-three point lead throughout the game. With Wilson centering most of their attention on Jacksonville’s Katie Neisler , who finished the tournament with 70 kills, 41 digs and eight blocks, the Lady Eagles knew that someone had to step up to help out. That someone turned out to be senior Mallory Haynes, who had key hits to help the Lady Eagles secure the win. Haynes, along with Neisler, were the only two returning players for the Lady Eagles.
“Mallory stepped up really big for us in the last game,” said Clark, “I kept telling them that they are running so hard to Katie that we can’t be predictable. I told them the rest of them could beat them as long as they helped Katie. Mallory had some big swings at the end for us.”
Haynes remembers that Clark told the girls after the game was all tied up that they could win. “Coach Clark told us that it was even, that this was like a new game,” said Haynes. “He told us to just start over and play like we could play.”
“I told the team that we don’t have to be great, just to play like all of us knew how to play and that we could win,” said Haynes, “I told them to play all out and play every ball and not give up.
“I felt pressure all night,” continued Haynes, “the coach said they were keying on Katie and that we had to be ready to stretch the court. I really felt I had to step up.”
With the win, the Lady Eagles punched their ticket to once again make an appearance at the Elite Eight. The last time that Clark didn’t go to Birmingham was in 2003.
With the win over Wilson the Lady Eagles advanced to the semi-finals where they beat Randolph in three straight, 25-10, 26-24, and 25-23.
In the finals Jacksonville lost to No.1 ranked Madison County 14-25, 15-25, 16-25 to take the runner-up spot.
Clark is very pleased with they way his team progressed. At the first of the season, after a team camp at Middle Tennessee State where the Lady Eagles did not play well, Clark knew he had his work cut out for him.
“We struggled at camp,” recalls Clark, “I knew after that camp that we were going to have some struggles but then we came out and played very well right off the bat and my personal expectations for them went way up.
“We maintained that for a while and then we had a rough streak where we didn’t play well and that was inexperience. We got comfortable and didn’t have all the focus we needed.”
Clark says his team’s confidence surged when they went to the Blaylock tournament and realized that they could play with anybody.
Only Haynes and Neisler have been on the teams that have made it to the Elite Eight. The rest of the team is inexperienced when it comes to playing volleyball at that level. However, with the new format of the Super Regionals, the team knows what to expect.
Haynes knows that as a senior and a team leader, she needs to help the younger players to not be nervous. “I will tell them not to stress out and don’t be nervous,” said Haynes. “We are a young team and haven’t experienced the Elite Eight as a group. I’ll tell them not to be nervous and to play like we are in the area tournament again.”
With the reputation that Jacksonville volleyball and Coach Clark has achieved over the years Haynes feels that that is one thing that weighs heavily on her. “I’m always thinking about that in the back of my mind,” said Haynes, “we have to be the ones now to make a name for ourselves.”
In addition to Neisler’s 70 kills at the tournament, Tamaria Mays added 39 kills and 19 blocks; Breanna Hosch 21 kills and 11 digs; Halee Stallings 30 kills, 21 blocks eight digs and five aces and setter Courtney Bowden had 139 assists.