E.A. Sports Today

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Jacksonville beats Pleasant Valley in 4 sets, beats both county tournament finalists this week

Rayanna Gordon and Aniyah Robinson (11) have played big roles for Jacksonville in the absence of injured Sierra Stone this week.

Rayanna Gordon and Aniyah Robinson (11) have played big roles for Jacksonville in the absence of injured Sierra Stone this week.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — There was no trophy to receive and the timing was a little late, but there was part of the Jacksonville volleyball team that could feel like Calhoun County Tournament champions.

The Golden Eagles beat Pleasant Valley in four sets Thursday 23-25, 25-22, 25-15, 25-15.

It was important emotionally in that it avenged the loss that knocked them out of the tournament on their own floor Saturday, but more significantly it gave them back-to-back wins over the two teams that played for the crown on Monday.

They beat tournament champion Oxford in five sets Tuesday.

“It means a lot … and it feels really good to come out on top,” junior outside hitter Aniyah Robinson said. “Just like the Saks game when we went to Pleasant Valley and they beat us (in the Sandy Hunter Invitational) and we turned around the next week and got them back.

“It says a lot about us. It’s a little letdown because we didn’t show all of our potential Saturday to where we could’ve been in the finals … but it’s a major comeback for us and it definitely sends out a message to all the other teams.

“After Saturday, coming into practice Monday knowing who we had this week, we kind of had a mindset of ‘this is what we have to do.’ This is going to set the pace for everything afterwards. It didn’t only prove things to other people, it brought a big message to us that we can do it.

“Having a trophy is good and everything, but being able to come back from harsh times and letdowns like that it feels better than any trophy or any thing.”

The fifth-ranked 4A Golden Eagles (22-8) won both matches this week without one of their biggest pieces and after making “some pretty significant” changes to their playing system.

Dominant junior middle Sierra Stone missed both matches with a sprained left ankle she sustained in the tournament quarterfinals loss to PV. She was on the bench encouraging her teammates in street clothes Thursday, wearing a protective boot that once belonged to former teammate Virginia Poe.

The injury was just coincidental coach David Clark changing things up with his new group. The new system effectively gives them two setters on the floor at the same time, enhances their defense and strengthens their depth.

Clark made a similarly major strategic change in 2013 and the Eagles went on to win a state title.

“I was giving kids a chance until Saturday to show what they could and couldn’t do and get a better feel for myself,” he said. “It wasn’t that we were playing that bad, its just the level of our play wasn’t where it should be, so it was time to make some change.

”It was a huge gamble, but I felt like something had to be done to shake up where we were and what we were doing.”

Stone is expected back Monday when the Golden Eagles look to clinch the area title against White Plains, and she’ll be plugged into the new rotation at that time.

Senior Rayanna Gordon was plugged into Stone’s spot in the lineup and along with Robinson and others picked up the slack.

“I feel like coach Clark prepared me for it – I used to be a middle – but it was big shoes to fill,” Gordon said. “I feel like I did a pretty good job. I just took a deep breath and stepped up. My team needed me. I had to be there to do what I have to do.”

Robinson had a big night with 16 kills and nine aces. She had two late kills that put Jacksonville on the verge of winning the second set. She served for six straight points to take control of the third set and her ace later clinched it. Another ace had her serving for the match in the fourth set.

Elizabeth Poe had 14 kills, Sarah Lumpkin had 11 kills and five blocks, and Reagan Stallings had 11 digs and five assists. Tatiyana Thomas had 16 assists and Halee Holtbrooks had 12.

In the match with Oxford, Poe had 21 kills, Robinson had 14, Lumpkin had 11 kills and nine blocks, Stallings had 26 digs, and Thomas had four blocks, four kills and 16 assists.

“Sierra being out may turn out to be a blessing because I think we rely on certain things from her too much and other people have picked their game up without her here, which you hope as a coach they do when you have an injury,” Clark said. “They’ve played so hard this week.

“It hasn’t always been the most beautiful volleyball, but we’ve played harder than we have all year. I think having Sierra out has kind of pushed those others to realize they had to do that.”

Pleasant Valley was playing its first match since losing to Oxford in five thrilling sets in the county tournament championship match. The Lady Raiders (28-7), ranked fifth in Class 3A, were simply flat.

“We just were not here today,” PV coach Dana Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us Monday night and I think we’re still feeling the effects, but that’s no excuse. I didn’t think we would be dragging as bad as we were today.”

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