By Robert Wilson
The volleyball dynasty on Sheffield Drive in Northeast Jackson – otherwise known as Jackson Academy – continued its dominance Wednesday night with a sweep of Madison-Ridgeland Academy at Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum in Clinton.
Check out these impressive facts:
JA won its fourth straight MAIS Class 6A state championship and eighth in the last nine years.
The Lady Raiders won its 51st consecutive match against MAIS competition, including a 15-0 mark this season where they lost only one set (to MRA in a regular season match). JA’s last MAIS loss was to Hartfield in the 2020 regular season.
JA won its 39th consecutive match against Mississippi competition (MAIS and MHSAA), including a 30-0 mark this season (15-0 each vs MAIS and MHSAA, all Class 6A schools). JA’s last Mississippi loss was to MHSAA Class 6A Oxford in the Desoto Central Mid-South Classic last season.
JA has won the Mississippi Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year for the past three seasons. Senior Laken Laurendine won it last season as a junior and could possibly repeat this season. JA’s Parker Bracken, now playing beach volleyball at LSU, won two straight years before Laurendine. JA is one of only two schools in the country to win their state’s Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year for the past three seasons. JA’s Conley Chinn won Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year in 2016 and led the Lady Raiders to its first three state titles. Chinn went on to have an outstanding basketball career at Belmont, Tenn., University.
Melissa Denson has a 187-28 record – a remarkable 87.0 winning percentage – in her five seasons as JA’s head coach, including a 40-5 mark this season.
JA is ranked No. 1 in Mississippi and No. 26 in the nation by prepvolleyball.com and ranked No. 1 in Mississippi and No. 9 in the South by USA Today.
JA, which had defeated MRA all three times during the regular season, came prepared to do it again Wednesday to complete its successful season. The Lady Raiders won 25-16, 25-20 and 25-16 for the sweep of the best-of-five set championship match.
In addition to playing its MAIS schedule and also defeating all of its MHSAA Class 6A opponents this season, JA against some of the best teams in the country in out of state tournaments. The Lady Raiders played in the Nike Tournament of Champions in Tampa, the Private School Championships at the University of West Georgia and out of state matches against two of the best teams in Tennessee (Houston High) and Louisiana (St. Mary’s Dominican High).
Denson played volleyball at Clinton High and Mississippi College and coached at Clinton before coming to JA. She is also the 13-year-old open coach and recruiting coordinator for Infinity Volleyball Academy in Ridgeland.
“Winning this championship is special for our team, but especially for our seniors,” Denson said. “The amount of hours they’ve dedicated to this program has helped put us on the map in our state and nationally.
“This season has been amazing. The chemistry of our girls is one of the main reasons our season was so successful. From the start of preseason, I knew this season would be special because of how much they loved each other. They sincerely had fun together.
“The entire team is extremely talented, but the sacrifices they make on a daily basis to be disciplined in their academics, other sports and on the court really speaks for what type of kids they are.
“People know we have talented players, but do not see the hours they sacrifice to get where we are. Weight room workouts weekly on top of practices, school work, and other sports is a lot to balance at their age. They do it well and are successful. I’m thankful for our school and JA community who support them throughout the year.”
Wednesday was a great way to end senior outside hitter Laken Laurendine’s career. The 6-foot-2 Laurendine is Auburn commitment, an All-American and last year’s Mississippi Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year. She is rated as one of the Top 23 players in the country in the Class of 2023 by volleyballrecruiter.com. Laurendine’s mother, Shawna, is the volleyball coach at Mississippi College and her father, Tommy, is the offensive coordinator on MC’s football staff.
“Winning this title for this team, program, and community is such an honor,” Laurendine said. “This team has put so much time and effort into this season whether it being in the weight room or on the court. We have loved every second of it and I cannot be more thankful that we ended this season on a high note.
“This group of girls have genuinely been some of my best friends. We have stuck together through everything on and off the court and for that I cannot thank them enough. The time and effort this coaching staff have poured into each of us individually has been incredible and I am so thankful for them.
“I’m proud of this team. We have had many battles put in front of us this year along with the JA community. Thankfully we are all one big family and stuck together through everything. I am so thankful for this school for the endless amount of support they have given this volleyball program.”
Laurendine was one of four returning starters from last year’s state championship team. The other three returning starters were 6-1 senior setter/right side and Mississippi College commitment Mary Grace Foster, 6-1 senior outside hitter Ava Ladner and junior setter Harper Griffin.
Junior Kaylee Lowther, a transfer from MHSAA Class 6A Germantown High and a Southern Miss commitment, started at Libero.
Other key players were 6-1 middle blocker Sophie Sosa, 5-10 junior right setter/outside hitter Ava Antonaros, 6-1 eighth-grade right side Carson Caraway, 6-2 senior middle blocker Hannah Towery and 5-5 senior defensive specialist Camille Towery (no relation).
MRA reached the championship for the first time in school history. The Lady Patriots finished with an 18-11 record, 12-6 against MAIS competition.
“We found a consistent groove with the last three games leading up to the championship game,” second year MRA coach Ross Dorr said. “Unfortunately, JA doesn’t allow you to breathe. They just squeeze you and put pressure on every point so you can’t afford a slip. We had too many slips. This was MRA’s first trip to a MAIS championship, so we definitely feel like we have had a successful season. And hopefully, this is just the beginning of MRA finals appearances.”
MRA was led by senior outside hitter Cameron Humphries, who is committed the North Florida to play beach volleyball. Other key players were Samantha Morris, Mary Hayes Maxey and Addie Griffin.