E.A. Sports Today

Snakes, rattle & roll

Jacksonville’s first-year coach finds perfect motivator to help Golden Eagles fight off White Plains’ comeback in 4A, Area 10 volleyball final

Cover photo: Jacksonville claims its trophy after winning the Class 4A, Area 10 volleyball tournament on Wednesday. (Photo by Joe Medley)

Class 4A, Area 10 tournament

At Jacksonville
Jacksonville def. Anniston (forfeit)
White Plains def. Cleburne County 25-8, 25-14, 25-18.
Jacksonville def. White Plains 25-23, 25-21, 17-25, 18-25, 15-8
All-tournament team:
MVP: Mya Swain, Jacksonville.
Cleburne County: Brooklyn Hulsey.
White Plains: Cooper Martin, Bella Higgins.
Jacksonville: Camryn Stone, Sydney Soriano.

The Class 4A, Area 10 all-tournament team (from left): Jacksonville’s Mya Swain, Sydney Soriano, and Camryn Stone plus White Plains’ Cooper Martin and Bella Higgins. Not pictured, Cleburne County’s Brooklyn Hulsey. (Photo by Joe Medley)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — A fear of snakes helped Jacksonville wrest momentum in the fifth set of Wednesday’s Class 4A, Area 10 volleyball final.

No, not the slithery kind that most certainly would’ve cleared out Van Deerman Gymnasium had one sampled the smooth comforts of Riley Green Court.

These “snakes” involve gymnasium stair runs, and first-year Jacksonville coach Amber Russell has found them to be useful motivators. Huddling with her team after White Plains won the third and fourth sets to force a fifth, she said the magic word.

“We definitely got a good talking to,” sophomore hitter and tournament most valuable player Mya Swain said. “She was basically like, she threatened us with snakes.”

The rest was hissssstory, as the Golden Eagles finished off a 25-23, 25-21, 17-25, 18-25, 15-8 victory for their 24th area title and first under Russell.

Jacksonville, the 2023 Class 4A, Area 10 champions. (Photo by Joe Medley)

“It’s a very big relief,” said Russell, who coached under the legendary David Clark, who retired from coaching after the 2022 season.

“But you know, he prepared me for this for 17 years,” Russell said. “I’ve been watching him and watching how his demeanor was, trying not to get too … he’s a lot calmer than I am. I tend to get a little up there, and this year I’ve had to learn how to scale that back.”

Except in certain moments, like the one Jacksonville faced against highly motivated White Plains.

Beset by key injuries at points in their first season under two-time state champion head coach Jamie McClendenin, White Plains hadn’t won a set in two previous matches against Jacksonville this season.

The Wildcats, including two Jacksonville transfers, outside hitter Carli Fritts and middle blocker Sara Kate Adams, scored 10 unanswered to take a 17-8 lead in the third set. They finished off that set and won the next.

“Beating them in two sets is, like, a big accomplishment for us,” outside hitter and all-tournament pick Cooper Martin said. “We don’t ever beat Jacksonville. … It really shows how much we’ve improved since last year.”

Martin missed part of this season coming back from a fractured clavicle, suffered during softball season. Middle blocker Isabella Higgins, who played in the Down Under Games in Australia this past summer, missed time with an ankle injury.

“She was out for like two months,” said Clendenin, who coached Donoho to two state titles and a runner-up finish in a three-year span. “I mean, we had her, but we had her for about a week there, and she went to the doctor, and he said you know, you need to stay off of it a couple of more weeks.

“We had her for some area matches, but it wasn’t fully. It wasn’t a hundred percent.”

The Wildcats didn’t have their full roster healthy Wednesday but were healthy enough to eliminate Cleburne County 25-8, 25-14, 25-18 in the first round and push Jacksonville to the limit.

They did enough to earn a berth in next week’s North Regional, along with Jacksonville.

“I’m proud of the girls, for sure,” Clendenin said. “They’ve worked hard this season.” 

White Plains, the 2023 Class 4A, Area 10 runner up. (Photo by Joe Medley)

It’s hard to beat snakes as a motivator, though, and the thought got Jacksonville’s legs moving in the fifth set. 

After the White Plains scored three consecutive points to close within 10-7, Swain got active. She screamed for a set as she rounded behind Sydney Soriano and hit it home to make it 11-7 then blocked for the next point.

Those two points began Jacksonville’s decisive run, as the Golden Eagles scored five of the final six points. Swain finished with 15 kills and Soriano 33 assists.

When the match ended, Swain teared up on the bench, thinking about what could’ve been in senior teammate Jehenna Engram’s final home match.

“I’ve been playing with my friend Jehenna for three years now,” Swain said. “It’s just emotional to see her last game on the court, and it was just an emotional moment for us.

“Honestly, she’s been a big part of my volleyball, just playing with her.”

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