E.A. Sports Today

Cubs on the cusp

Alexandria reaches Class 5A state finals match, five other Calhoun County teams in the Elite Eight fall short of joining the Valley Cubs

Alexandria's Taylor Spradley shows her excitement after the winning point dropped in the Lady Cubs' 5A semifinal victory over St. John Paul II. On the cover, all the Lady Cubs celebrate. (All photos by Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics Photography)

Alexandria’s Taylor Spradley shows her excitement after the winning point dropped in the Lady Cubs’ 5A semifinal victory over St. John Paul II. On the cover, all the Lady Cubs celebrate. (All photos by Kristen Stringer/Krisp Pics Photography)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

BIRMINGHAM – When this journey to the land of the red and blue trophies began, 10 of the 15 teams that play volleyball in Calhoun County were at the starting line. Six made it here to the state tournament.

Now there is one remaining.

Alexandria will give the county a shot at a state championship Thursday after it was left as the only team to survive the gauntlet that is the Elite Eight.

The Valley Cubs reached the finals — for the first time since 2011 — when they defeated St. John Paul II 3-1 (25-15, 25-11, 22-25, 25-19) Wednesday at the Crossplex arena. They will play St. Paul’s for the Class 5A state title at 10 a.m. in Bill Harris Arena.

They will be seeking their fourth state volleyball title and first since the last of three in a row in 1995. Calhoun County has produced a state volleyball champ since Jacksonville in 2013.

“I’m just super excited,” Alexandria coach Whitney Welch said. “Honestly, I just really wanted it for these girls because they have put in the work.

“We have a lot of kids who play multiple sports and we also have four cheerleaders (Stillwell, Tori Pope, China Lane and Kinsley Gregoria) who every Friday night they cheer and they come to practice a little bit late, but they stay late and always finish. The game knows what you do and it only pays back. They really work hard and I wanted to do it for them.”

Two other county teams also reached the semifinals but fell short.

Jacksonville lost in the Class 4A semis for the second year in a row, falling to St. James 3-1 (25-18, 25-18, 19-25, 26-24). Donoho, last year’s state runner-up, saw its unexpected run to the Elite Eight end in a 3-1 loss to Decatur Heritage 3-1 (20-25, 25-11, 25-12, 25-14).

When the winning point fell sending Alexandria to the state finals for the first time in five years, junior Taylor Spradley felt a sense of unrivaled joy.

“Nothing could have felt better,” she said. “It was the best feeling in the world. We fought real hard to go to the finals.”

The Alexandria hitters were strong all day. Stillwell had 16 kills and Spradley had 15 in the semifinals match, but the Lady Cubs also passed the ball well to make things happen. Gracie Muncher had had 42 assists and six aces in the semifinals and 82 assists in their two matches.

Spradley had 16 kills, Catelynn Howell 17 and Stillwell 14 in their quarterfinals win over Faith Academy. Spradley called the group “just amazing.”

“When they’re on-on and we’re passing well, then we’re sort of hard to beat,” Welch said of her big hitters.

The Lady Cubs (48-9) dominated the first two sets, jumping out to leads of 14-1 and 18-3 in the second, but then they relaxed with the big lead. The Lady Falcons stayed in control of the third set and held a 10-7 lead in the fourth before Alexandria recovered and pulled away.

“The momentum switched to them and we had to mentally get through it and come back,” Welch said. “That was where I was most proud, that mentally and through each other they were able to do it.”

But there’s a little more work to do.

“Making it to the finals is a big deal and we just (have to) finish,” Spradley said. “We’re just going to do what we do best and play every ball.”

Donoho coach Janice Slay says getting to the state semifinals was a  "huge" accomplishment for this year's team.

Donoho coach Janice Slay says getting to the state semifinals was a “huge” accomplishment for this year’s team.


The Lady Falcons (45-10) started strong by winning the first set, but then Decatur Heritage’s experience came to the fore. Kayla Grimes, a 6-1 senior dominated at the net, and the Lady Eagles regularly kept balls in play with diving digs.

Grimes had 28 kills and seven blocks. Tiara Bowers had 22 kills. Caitlin Cheatham, Maggie Holsclaw and Cassidy Cheatham (36) combined for 69 digs. Chatham had 56 assists.

Madison Gaines had 16 kills. Peyton Suco had 10. Katie Brown dished 44 assists and kept the ball alive with 31 digs.

The third set was close early, with the score tied at 8-8, then the Lady Eagles pulled away. Donoho led the fourth set 14-11, but Decatur Heritage scored the final 14 points of the match.

“The first game was really good and we have that tendency to go out like gangbusters and when things kind of settle in we back away rather than push forward,” Donoho coach Janice Slay said. “We let them get in our heads instead of taking the aggressive side when we needed to. They were just putting the ball back over waiting for us to make a mistake and that’s what we did. That has been probably this year the thing that has hurt us the most, not being able to capitalize on our skills and letting the other team dominate what we do rather than we dominate.”


The Lady Golden Eagles fell in the state semifinals for the second year in a row.

They lost the first two sets, fought back from an 18-15 deficit to win the third set and nearly pulled off a similar comeback in the fourth set before falling 26-24.

Coach David Clark praised his team’s toughness, the element he was seeking from them in his pre-tournament speech. The problem on the night, he said, was his team was simply chasing the score too much.

They did manage to get the lead in the third set, which made it easier to play. He’s convinced if they ever got the go-ahead point late in the fourth set they likely would be playing well beyond where the match finished.

They trailed in the set 18-12 and had it tied at 23, but could never forge ahead. Elizabeth Poe had 14 kills in the match. Sierra Stone had 10 kills and eight blocks. Aniyah Robinson had 10 kills, Sarah Lumpkin had six kills and Tatiyana Thomas had 30 assists.

“I told them the one thing we lack right now going in is toughness; I just want you to be tough,” Clark said. “That’s what we talked about all games 3 and 4. Life’s about getting knocked down and getting back up – how many times can you get back up? They could’ve packed it in after a few games, but they didn’t, they got back up and showed me some toughness. I told them I appreciate and if you carry that forward in life it’ll help you.”

Saks' LaMonica Noel (3) and Madison Tate go up together to block Jacksonville's Elizabeth Poe.

Saks’ LaMonica Noel (3) and Madison Tate go up together to block Jacksonville’s Elizabeth Poe.


The Lady Golden Eagles beat their county rivals 25-15, 25-9, 25-19. Ironically, for teams only 10 miles apart this was the first time they had played this season.

Saks jumped out early, opening leads of 6-1 and 9-3, but Jacksonville settled in and, behind the serving of Brooke Murphy, climbed back into the match and pulled away. Murphy served 11 straight points as the Lady Eagles went from 9-6 down to 17-9 ahead.

“Brooke settled us down,” Clark said. “She got us some easy points with her serve; that was a big deal.”

“I just went in there with the serve, that’s my job,” Murphy said. “I was very nervous (at first), but once I served the first one over I was fine. Sometimes I don’t think my serve is that good, but it seems to get us through.”

The Lady Eagles might have been slow out of the gate, but Clark wasn’t concerned. It comes with the territory, he said.

“I don’t care how many times you come here, it’s always the first 10 points you’ve just got to let happen so your kids can settle in,” he said.

Sierra Stone had 13 kills and six blocks. Elizabeth Poe had eight kills. Tatiyana Thomas had 24 assists, four kills and three blocks.

The Lady Wildcats played confidently in the third set. Devonna Stone had nine kills and two blocks while Miracle Dennard had 13 assists.

“We’ve got to play with confidence and we didn’t do that,” Saks coach Randy Law saw. “If we had played them like we did that third game. … We finally settled it and started playing hard and extending plays, but the first two games we had the deer-in-the-headlights look.

“We felt pretty good (with the early lead) and I thought we were going to step up and play, but then when they started hitting it at us a little bit then we got a little scared.”

Sacred Heart's Deborah Greene makes a play on the ball during the Lady Cardinals' heart-breaking five-set loss to Isabella.

Sacred Heart’s Deborah Greene makes a play on the ball during the Lady Cardinals’ heart-breaking five-set loss to Isabella.


Sacred Heart coach Peyton vanEkris was trying hard to hold back the tears. This one hurt.

The Lady Cardinals won the first two sets in their unexpected trip to the Elite Eight, 25-18, 25-23 before Isabella rallied 25-20, 25-21, 15-9.

“I really don’t have anything (to say) at this point,” vanEkris said. “I’m sorry, I’m going to cry because I’m really upset.

“We could have played better; we could have. They adjusted. They adjusted to our hitting, to our playing hard. They got scrappier, we didn’t, which we usually do.”

The Mustangs took control of the tiebreaker with seven straight early points. They won the serve back in taking a 2-1 lead, then scored the two points that turned the tied. They made an acrobatic save in the backcourt and turned it into the point when the ball just eeked over the next. They scored the next point off the tape as well.

“I think that was the turning point,” vanEkris said. “Just having that one ball just hit the tape and come over. We should have been ready for it. We thought we got it. We got a little cocky at that point.”

Lone senior Haley Shaw led Sacred Heart in her final high school match with 15 kills, six blocks and 28 digs. Jumoke Sanusi had seven kills and 21 digs. Jacque Beyerle had 36 digs and Jayla Woods had 28 assists.

“I’m very proud of our season overall,” van Ekris said. “Nobody thought we were going to make it this far, but we did. They proved so many people wrong just making it to the Elite Eight. It showed me how strong they are. … I know what they can do know and they know what they can do. It’s just a matter of doing it.”

Oxford's Nyia Archie was particularly strong at the net for the Lady Yellow Jackets.

Oxford’s Nyia Archie was particularly strong at the net for the Lady Yellow Jackets.


The Lady Yellow Jackets, making the Elite Eight for the first time in 6A, won the second set to even the match before the top seed out of the South pulled away. It was 25-14, 22-25, 25-9, 25-19.

“Hey, they battled,” coach Wendy McKibbin said. “I thought we played lights out. The third set we didn’t, the first 15 points, but after that we did. My kids fought. They played well. They came to play. They played together.

“Getting to the state tournament is one thing, but when you come and you can compete and they left everything out of the floor, that’s all you can ask for. I couldn’t be more proud of my kids.”

Nyia Archie was strong at the net and Alex Hammond was strong on the floor. Archie had 20 kills and six blocks. Hammond had 20 digs.


It took the Lady Cubs a set to settle in, but then they were dominant. They lost the first set 21-25, then won 25-15, 25-17, 25-20.

“I was worried a little bit about how they would come out with all the people on the big stage, but they responded,” Welch said. “A lot of people say if you can get past that first game you can kind of settle in and play your best.”

Katie Brown had 82 assists in Donoho's two matches Wednesday.

Katie Brown had 82 assists in Donoho’s two matches Wednesday.


The Lady Falcons set up the meeting with their old nemesis with this 25-22, 25-11, 25-18 victory. Madison Gaines had 25 kills, Peyton Suco had 12 kills and Katie Brown had 38 assists.

When Slay returned to the Lady Falcons this summer after announcing her retirement a few months earlier she didn’t think the team would get past the area tournament. It wasn’t for a lack of talent — and she had four seniors back from the previous year’s “Super 8” that beat Decatur Heritage in the semis and lost to Meek in the finals — but because it didn’t have “a complete package” they could win with.

But this group won the area tournament and reached the Final Four.

“To be able to come back and get to the semifinals is huge; this is huge,” Slay said. “The returning state champions didn’t make it back to the state tournament, so at least we got here. We did not walk away without people saying Donoho was back. That’s what we needed to do. Donoho’s still here. We’re not going away.”

Peyton Suco keeps the ball alive for a Donoho point against Ragland.

Peyton Suco keeps the ball alive for a Donoho point against Ragland.

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