The Tigers of Madison County (72-5) won their 42nd straight win with their victory over Jacksonville in the state championship game. Syretha Pride recorded 20 kills in the match for Madison County, time and again putting away kills that the Lady Eagles just couldn’t handle, not even with three blockers at the net.
Madison County dominated the match 25-18, 25-14 and 25-7 to claim their first ever state volleyball title.
While the loss was devastating at the time for the Lady Eagles (38-18), just being at the new Crossplex in Birmingham for the Elite Eight and making it to the finals was very much a Cinderella story, despite the Lady Eagles being ranked in the top ten throughout the season.
Jacksonville made it all the way despite the fact that they had only two returnees from last year’s team, something that is next to incredible.
Lady Eagle head coach David Clark after the finals were over talked of how his team had come such a long way, from a team camp that made him think that the year was going to be a struggle, to seeing his team peak at the end of the season with big wins in the Super Regionals to make it to the Elite Eight.
“It’s the journey that is important because the outcome is going to be what it’s going to be,” said Clark.
“There are 100 teams who would like to be where we are,” said Clark after the match with Madison County was over. “I know it hurts now but when they look back they’ll see what they did as a group and what they accomplished in the season.
“I think we battled inexperience. We ran into a Madison County team that is very good and I think hit only two balls out. I think they deserve to be the state champion.”
Senior Mallory Haynes and junior Katie Neisler, the only two leftovers from last years team, felt like they had done all they could against Madison County. “I can take losing to Madison County because they are a good team; the other teams I couldn’t lose to,” said Haynes.
“I can’t think of anything different we could do,” said Neisler of Madison County. “They are a good team.”
Neisler, who was named to the All-State tournament team, had 11 kills for the Lady Eagles in the loss.
The road to the championship game began for the Eagles with an easy 25-15, 25-19, 25-19 win over UMS Wright. Neisler led her team with 14 kills, 13 digs and three blocks. Junior Halee Stallings added 10 kills and six blocks and setter Courtney Bowden 25 assists.
Later in the afternoon Jacksonville faced Randolph beating them 25-19, 25-12, and 25-22. While the Lady Eagles had no problems the first two sets the third set saw a pesky Randolph team that just wouldn’t go away. After Jacksonville took a commanding lead early in the match, Randolph came bouncing back. Jacksonville went up again, 18-11 but Randolph tied it at 20-all before the Lady Eagles put the match away.
Neisler once again had 14 kills and Stallings 10 to lead the Lady Eagles, with Bowden adding 29 assists.
After the match with Randolph, that saw Jacksonville fans clamoring at the rails to congratulate their Lady Eagles, Neisler was enthusiastic and upbeat about the finals match the next day with Madison County, despite the fact that Madison County had beat them just the week earlier in the finals of the Super Regionals in Huntsville.
Neisler, exuberant over the win looked forward to the match the following day with Madison County. “We have to have confidence and we’ve been playing with that. We just have to believe in ourselves. We need to go all out and just have fun and play.”
While the ending wasn’t what the Lady Eagles had wanted, they were able to take an inexperienced team to the Elite Eight and make it all the way to the finals.
Next year it will all be different. The Lady Eagles lose only one senior starter and will all come back not only with the experience of one year of varsity volleyball behind them, but the experience of having played in the state finals.