The story has all the makings of a Hollywood script, a deployed mother and coach, the husband who took over in her absence, and a state championship. This tale however wasn’t created by any writer. It is the true story of a local family and basketball team.
Early in the 2017-2018 school year, Lacey Kennedy learned that a little more than a year later life would change rather drastically. A member of the United States Army Reserve, she had been promoted to a unit that was scheduled to deploy to Qatar. Much like any other military family would, she and husband Jason immediately begin to map out the logistics. There were their two young sons to consider and the myriad of other personal responsibilities that would need to be managed. However, for the Kennedy’s there was another huge aspect to consider, a basketball team. Lacey Kennedy is the head girls basketball coach at Pearl High School. The couple broke the news to school officials in the spring, but kept the news from everyone else including the team.
“I didn’t leave until November,” Kennedy said. “The most important part of basketball is the off season and preseason and I didn’t want that lingering in their mind or negatively impacting their work ethic.”
Along with Jason Kennedy who had been hired as her assistant the previous fall, she doggedly worked them through off-season conditioning and summer basketball games. After a short break and a return to school, the coaching couple began preseason preparation. It was intense and aggressive, but not much different than the way things normally are for Pearl girls basketball. Finally, after a difficult but fruitful practice, the Kennedy’s decided it was time. As the pair broke the news, shock and tears filled the room. A few minutes of silence passed before senior Jayla Alexander spoke up.
“She stood up and said, ‘Coach, we are gonna get that gold ball for you. When you come home, we’ll have it for you.”t
Three months later she left her top ranked team, with Dandy Dozen duo Jayla Alexander and Makayla Minett, in the hands of her very capable assistant coach and husband.
The Sergeant spent her time overseas working all day and watching Pearl’s live game feeds and Hudl film in the wee hours of the morning. Her conversations with her husband included the usual pleasantries, but more often than not evolved into detailed sessions of game and player critique. As the weeks and months passed it became pretty apparent that the Lady Pirates intended to make good on their promise. They rolled through post season play trouncing Meridian 101-44 to make the 6A Final Four and knocking off Greenville by 18 to earn their spot in the title game.
That March night, the soldier Kennedy and her battle buddies watched anxiously via shaky live-streams on a computer and two cell phones “in case one went out.” The Lady Pirates took on a determined Terry squad in a district rematch, but would not be denied. As the final minute of the clock counted down on the Pirate’s 6A State Championship win, Lacey Kennedy broke into tears. When the final buzzer sounded on Pearl’s 59-48 victory, an emotional Jason dedicated the team’s first state title in 25 years to his wife and offered a teary “I love you.” Within minutes, a phone produced from somewhere in the crowd brought Lacey’s teary and proud congratulations to the group via Facetime.
The Lady Pirates had added 28 wins to the two Lacey Kennedy was able to pick up before her departure, finishing the season 30-1 and earning a district championship en route to the title.
The movie would end here with a final scene showing Lacey Kennedy emerging from the locker room with the championship trophy yelling, “Who left this on my desk?” and her team tearing screaming from the bleachers to embrace their returned hero.
For the Lady Pirates, it does not. They seem poised to produce a sequel almost as good as the original. The team is currently undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the state. They opened district play Tuesday with a 72-27 thrashing of Terry that looked very different from last year’s state title game.
Lacey Kennedy has resumed her role sitting first chair, but Jason Kennedy is still on the sidelines. The former head coach easily slipped back into his role as an assistant, serving as the reassuring and calming bridge between the girls and their hard nosed head coach.
“He did it gladly I promise you,” Lacey Kennedy laughs. “His thing is that he likes to be the motivator and super positive. The toughest thing for him was transitioning into being the aggressive one.”
Together, they are leading a team whose uptempo style of play wreaks havoc for opponents. Their style is loud, quick and relentless. On most nights, leading the charge is Dandy Dozen Olivia “Lil Bit” Knight. The 5-foot-3 senior guard played an integral role in last year’s run. This year, she is the team’s go to player averaging 21 points per game and leading the team in nearly every other category.
“It’s the things you can’t write down on paper, the heart and the leadership,” Lacey Kennedy says. “If (Olivia) is on the floor her mouth is always running calling defenses, calling offenses, directing traffic. She is just nonstop.”
She doesn’t do it alone though. Seven other seniors see significant playing time. Nya Hatcher is a fearless defender regularly assigned to guard the opposing team’s best player. Mackenzie Carter had a slow start to the season due to injuries, but is a strong combo player who pulls rebounds, creates turnovers and scores from inside and out. Victoria Walters, affectionately referred to as “Biggums,” aggressively defends under the basket making it extremely difficult for her opponent to get a high percentage shot.
The Lady Pirates also receive valuable production from the bench. Senior Amira Sanders is considered by Lacey Kennedy as an assistant coach on the floor. The team captain’s ability to enter a game and immediately make an impact is invaluable. Against Terry, when her team got off to a slow start, Sanders subbed in, quickly picked up two fastbreak layups and knocked down a three. The spark changed the momentum of the game. Keke Nichols and sophomore Jacia Hayes are two additional weapons in Pearl’s arsenal adding points, deflections, steals, rebounds and whatever else may be needed.
It is, however, a freshman who is Pearl’s floor general. Kynnedi Davis is a top prospect in the class of 2023. The 5-3point guard averages 11 points per game She is a knock down outside shooter and can easily beat a defender off the dribble for a layup or jump shot. Add her defensive effort to that and it is no wonder that she is rarely not on the floor.
It is a true team effort. Ten members of the 15 man roster have scored in double digits at least once this season.
“That is one of the great things about this team,” says Lacey Kennedy. “You have to guard all five people on the court because they can all score. When one has a bad night, we have nine other girls who can step up.”
The road to back-to-back titles will not be easy for Pearl. Joining them in the state’s top ten are 6A powerhouses Meridian, Tupelo, Brandon, Olive Branch and Clinton, not one of which carries more than three losses. However, the Lady Pirates haven’t thought much about the run this year.
“Honestly, my main focus was getting back to being the best that I could be for the girls and trying to get them to be the best that they could be for themselves,” says Lacey Kennedy. “My main focus was ‘Let’s do what we do and let’s get what we do right and we’ll figure out the rest.”
Still, being able to hoist a championship ball with her girls instead of watching via computer would be a dream come true.
“If that were to happen,” says Kennedy with a long pause. “It would be everything.”
If the movie execs are looking to write this script, they may want to put a pin in it. Pearl is not done with this story quite yet.