Parker Bracken had been waiting 367 days for Saturday. And the Jackson Academy junior, considered the best high school volleyball player in Mississippi, was determined to lead her team to the Mid-South Association of Independent Schools championship.
Bracken and her Lady Raider teammates avenged last year’s loss in the MSAIS championship to Hartfield Academy with a straight-set victory over the Lady Hawks at Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum in Clinton.
Hartfield ended JA’s four-year reign as state champions and also broke a four-year unbeaten streak against MSAIS teams with an upset over the Lady Raiders a year ago. That losing feeling has been eating at Bracken for a year and it wasn’t going away until JA captured the state crown this year. Just like a year ago, JA had beaten Hartfield twice during the regular season.
“Since we were in the same exact situation as last year, many of my teammates were very nervous and anxious. I tried my best to stay calm, so maybe they would do the same,” Bracken said. “I was also focused on living in the present. As a player, I can’t think about the next set or next five points. I have to think about what’s happening at that moment. Every practice, every minute in the gym, every match this season has been in preparation for this one championship match. We were fully prepared.”
It showed. JA won 25-20, 25-14 and 25-16. Game. Set. Match. Lady Raiders.
“It was a great feeling of relief. We have worked so unbelievably hard this year for this moment. It was quite a satisfying feeling,” Bracken said. “Last year was the complete opposite. Last year we were fighting for a 5-peat. We got too confident and ended up losing. This was a total defeat. I felt sadderthan anyone else because I’d been on the team longer than anyone else had. This was also the game where I hyperextended my knee in the first set. Even though I continued to play, I felt like I couldn’t give my all. That defeat made our team more determined to win this year.”
JA, which is ranked No. 1 in Mississippi among public and private schools by Maxpreps, finished with a 43-3 record, undefeated among MSAIS schools. The Lady Raiders’ losses wereto Class 6A public school Clinton (they defeated Clinton three out of four times), Class 4A public school Vancleve (they split in two matches) and Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. JA won its last 18 matches without losing a set and won 37 of their 43 matches in straight sets.
“All of the girls seemed calm and confident going into the championship match,” JA second-year coach Melissa Denson said. “Losing was not an option and they were determined to win it in straight sets. Hartfield got up on us 5-1 to start the match, but I knew we would be ok so I didn’t even call timeout and we turned it around. After the match I told them how proud I was of them and how much I loved them. The girls were so excited to win this championship and finish it by playing so well.”
Denson knows her volleyball. She played at Clinton High and Mississippi College then was a head coach at Clinton High before coming to JA. Denson also is in her fifth year as assistant director for the Infinity Volleyball Academy in Flowood and in her second year as a high performance coach for USA Volleyball.
Bracken – who has committed to LSU to play beach volleyball – is quick to point out she has plenty of help.
“The main reason for how this team had such a good season was because we all genuinely love each other,” Bracken said. “If you watch any team that is losing, you could feel the tension and see them starting to give up. On the other hand, we knew what we had to do to win: work together as a unit. Another factor was that our coaches always stayed calm, especially when we weren’t. They helped us to get out of our funks and losing streaks. We were always physically and mentally prepared for every match.”
Other JA starters include 5-foot-11 senior outside hitter Anna Katherine Ray, 5-9 junior middle blocker Pryor Mehrle, 5-9 junior setter Natalie DeRusso, 5-7 sophomore libero Remy Jones, 6-2 sophomore middle blocker Anna Claire Sheffield and 6-1 eighth-grade opposite Emma Robertson.
Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Conley Chinn led JA to the first three state titles and is now playing basketball for Belmont in Nashville. Bracken took over when Chinn left for college and helped the Lady Raiders to the their fourth straight state title in 2017. She had a career-high 648 kills this season and made her 2,000th career kill this year. DeRusso, who ranks third in the nation in assists, had her 3,000th career assist this season.
JA loses only two seniors, Ray and defensive specialist Lily Grace Thigpen, so the Lady Raiders have their eyes on a sixth state in seven seasons next year.
Meanwhile, Hartfield coach Morgan McNeely and his Lady Hawks will try to get back to the state title game for the third straight year next season. McNeely, who finished his fourth year as head coach, was pleasantly surprised by last year’s finish and very proud his team made it back to the championship this season. Hartfield finished 19-11 this year.
“We played our best match in the championship game last season,” said McNeely, who played football at Madison-Ridgeland Academy and Belhaven University and got introduced to volleyball in intramurals at Belhaven. “We lost the first set, then won three straight. We were really young last year, but continued to improve as the year went along. The same was true this season.”
Junior outside hitter Julia Dyess, the first player from Mississippi to ever commit to Ole Miss, is Hartfield’s leader. Other starters are senior middle hitter Stevie Nesbitt, senior libero Emma Dyess (Julia’s sister), junior right hitter Nikki Lawrence, junior setter Jill Sullivan, sophomore outside hitter Addye McNeely (Coach McNeely’s daughter) and sophomore middle hitter Avery Rushing. Hartfield suffered a key injury this summer when senior setter Heidie Klein suffered a season-ending ankle injury. But Sullivan, who started as an eighth-grader and freshman, replaced Klein as the setter.