By Robert Wilson

       High School All-American and two-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Lakin Laurendine has taken her remarkable talents to Auburn, but don’t think Jackson Academy volleyball won’t challenge for its fifth straight MAIS state championship and ninth out of the last 10 seasons.

       JA coach Melissa Denson, who starts her sixth year at JA and 13th overall, believes she has the talent, depth, and winning experience to make a run at another state title.

       “Our focus isn’t really to replace the Gatorade Player of the Year,” Denson said. “That’s always been a bonus the last few years, but our program has so many kids who can contribute and understand our core values. These seniors have waited their turn, played roles, and now it’s their time to step into bigger roles. I believe the foundation of our entire program and training from the bottom up will be our biggest factor.

       “Winning consecutive state titles allows our girls to understand the process that takes place to get to that final game. They understand the schedule we play and why, the summer training, and the weight room. They’ve felt the pressure before and have the drive to continue to make our school and program proud.”

Photo by Chris Todd

       Laurendine was the star at JA for the past two years after transferring from Clinton High.

The 6-foot-2 outside hitter was a first team AVCA All-American and named the National Volleyball Player of the Year by Laurendine led JA to its fourth straight MAIS state championship this past year, a No. 1 ranking in Mississippi and No. 26 in the nation by and No. 1 ranking in Mississippi and No. 9 in the South by USA Today. She led the Lady Raiders to 51 consecutive wins against MAIS competition and 39 straight wins against Mississippi teams (MAIS and MHSAA). Laurendine had a Mississippi record 2,712 kills, 2,055 digs, 441 aces, 168 blocks and 31 assists during her high school career.

JA – recognized as the best volleyball program in Mississippi and one of the best in the country – has had the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year for the four seasons, Laurendine won the last two, and Parker Bracken, now playing beach volleyball at LSU, won the two years before that. Also, Conley Chinn – who was an All-Conference basketball player at Belmont, Tenn., University – won the award when she played at JA in 2016.

       Laurendine and starters Mary Grace Foster (now playing at Mississippi College) and Ava Ladner graduated, but Denson has plenty of players returning.

       The returning starters are senior setter Harper Griffin, senior Libero and Southern Miss commitment Kaylee Lowther, senior outside hitter and Mississippi College commitment Ava Antonaros, 6-foot-2 freshman outside hitter Carson Caraway and 6-2 junior middle blocker Sophie Sosa.

       Denson has also added two transfers from MHSAA Class 6A Madison Central, sophomore setter Keira Hariel and senior middle blocker Meghan Ellis. Ellis’ stepsister is Megan Sullivan, Denson’s assistant coach.

       Once again, Denson has put together a difficult non-conference schedule to get her girls ready for conference play at the state playoffs. JA will play in the Volley in the Ville tournament at Collierville, Tenn., against Class 7A public school teams from Tennessee and Arkansas, the SECIS Championship in Macon, Ga., against the top private schools in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, the St. Joseph Sticker Classic in Baton Rouge, and the Southern Classic at Ridgeland against the top teams from Mississippi and Tennessee. JA will play host to Houston, one of the top teams in Tennessee, and Saint Mary’s Dominican, the top team in Louisiana last year, in regular season games.

       JA opens the regular season Tuesday against MHSAA Class 5A Florence High at JA. The Lady Raiders will be going for their 40th consecutive win against a Mississippi team. JA will play MAIS Class 5A Lamar School Thursday in Meridian and will try for its 52nd consecutive win against MAIS teams.

       JA visits MRA Aug. 17 at MRA in a rematch of last year’s 6A state championship game. MRA was the only MAIS team to win a set against JA last season, winning one in a regular season game at MRA.