By Torsheta Jackson
Jackson Academy head girls basketball coach Jan Sojourner stands at center court surrounded by people and silver balloons reading 1,000. They present her with flowers, a personalized poster, and a game ball. Sojourner with a 66-15 victory over Richland had just secured her 1,000th career win in her 42nd season as a head coach.
In the early minutes of that game, she had watched intently from the sidelines periodically checking the folded sheet of paper in her hand. Her team forced a turnover right in front of the bench earning her clap of approval. In response, they force another and pass it ahead for a quick basket. They press, score, then repeat. Their opponents fatigue quickly under the pressure. When the buzzer sounded to end the quarter, the Lady Raiders jogged over to their coach. Most of them had to look down to see her. They do, waiting eagerly to know if she approves of their first quarter play. She does.
The Lady Raider stifling defense and up tempo play have been a staple of the program for as long as anyone can remember. It’s Sojourner’s style and it works. She holds the record for the second highest number of victories of any active girls basketball coach in the state.
“I want to make the other team real uncomfortable by putting a lot of pressure on the basketball, by really getting up and trying to guard and making them have to make decisions,” Sojourner said. “We want to push the ball up and down the floor. We want to be able to control the tempo.”
Sojourner decided that the sidelines would be her home at a very young age.
“I knew about the ninth grade that I wanted to coach basketball because I loved it,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and I wanted to try to be a coach.”
After high school, the Crystal Springs native played basketball at Mississippi College. She was a junior point guard on the 1974 team that lost the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women – now known as the National Championship – to Immaculata.
She began her lifelong dream of coaching in 1976 at Canton Academy. She spent five years there as the head basketball and track coach. She then moved on to spend three years coaching junior high basketball at Brandon. By 1985, Sojourner had begun thinking about coaching on the collegiate level. She talked to a friend who was a football graduate assistant at Auburn, and he encouraged her to join him at the Alabama school. She spent a year there but found herself longing for home.
“I went over there, and I’ll be honest with you, I was real disappointed in myself,” she said. “I couldn’t stay over there because I got so homesick. I wanted to get back home. There was quite a bit of Mississippi girls so we would all load up in my car and drive back home any chance we got because we were all homesick.”
In 1986, she got a call from Carolyn Wallace, a college friend who was the head coach at Jackson Academy. She told Sojourner that she was getting out of coaching leaving her position vacant. Sojourner jumped at the chance to be home again. More than three decades later, she is still there.
Sojourner started out teaching history but teaching really wasn’t her thing. She just wanted to coach. She took charge of the entire girls basketball program which limited her time in the classroom to a few study hall courses. She was ok with that. She held the reins of the varsity, 7th and 8th grade teams until 10 years ago when she went part time.
In her 37 years at JA, Sojourner has had major success. You’ll be hard pressed to get her to talk about it though. She doesn’t bring up that she has been named the Clarion-Ledger Metro Coach of the Year three times and Clarion-Ledger State Coach of the Year twice. There is no mention that she was inducted into the first class of the MAIS Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. She will quickly tell you that she has no idea how many state championships her teams hold – 10, nor how many Overall titles she has acquired – 6. She will simply say that she isn’t done. In an interview last year, she refused to even say how many wins she had.
“I don’t know how many. I can tell you this, it is definitely not enough,” she said.
She takes very little credit for the success the Lady Raiders have seen under her leadership. She actually assigns the achievements to several factors. One is the vital role her assistant coaches have played. In the late 80s, Sojourner was joined on staff by Sharon Clark. Clark remained with the program for 16 years and the two developed a close bond. Sharon’s three daughters, Stacie, Stephanie, and Sarah, played for Sojourner at JA. Sojourner credits her longtime assistant and daughters with helping begin the JA dynasty. Her current assistant, Ronnie Rogers, has been there for more than a decade. He does much of the team’s scouting and offensive work. He also heads the junior high program.
“He’s been a blessing to our program,” Sojourner said. “Everything that assistant coaches are supposed to do, he does for us and does a great job with that. The girls respond to him really well.”
She gives the most credit to her players though she is slow to try to name any of the number of standout athletes that she has coached over the years. The JA Legacy site lists at least 11 athletes from Sojourner’s team that have played college basketball. There is Conley Chinn whose 11 point, 6 rebound and 4 assist performance last season helped the Belmont Bruins win the Ohio Valley Conference Championship and seal a trip to the NCAA tournament. You will also find Brett Ball, a first team all-MAIS selection who earned a scholarship to South Carolina before being declared medically ineligible her freshman year. Ball spent two seasons as the graduate manager with the Ole Miss Women’s Basketball program. Jalessa Taylor, now the head coach at Northwest Rankin High School, is also a former Lady Raider. She had a stellar four-year playing career at Mississippi College before spending nearly a decade on the team’s coaching staff.
“There are so many of them that have really done some great things,” Sojourner said. “God has blessed me with some unbelievable athletes and unbelievable players and young ladies that have the same mindset.”
Sojourner’s players will tell you that she is the key. She is fiery, loud, and tough. Her practices are exhausting and demanding. It is expected and well known by all who come through the program even at the youngest age.
“When I was in the 7th grade, I would stay after school and watch them practice because my mom didn’t get off until later,” said Lady Raider alumni Emily Thompson. “Every day I would see them run. If they messed up, they would run. If they didn’t have a great attitude, they would run. But then you would also see times when they were cheering for each other and the gym would be so loud that you would think there is a game going on because everyone was just having a great time.”
Still, her players love her, and she loves them. Eleven of the thirteen players on her very first 1976 Canton Academy team witnessed her 500th and 800th victory. Last week, her starting five – Beverly Cooper Smith, Lisa Shipp Lake, Robin Webb Tonus, Terri Martin Tate, and McNeill – were there to witness her 1,000th win. Forty-five years later, McNeill says that they are all like best friends.
“We have not missed her milestones since she has been at Jackson Academy,” she said. “Since she landed at Jackson Academy, we have always watched her championship games. She has had some good girls at Jackson Academy. We are just that good as friends.”
Every one of her players will relate her toughness. They will also tell you how the lessons they learned inside Sojourner’s gym helped them develop a grit that will last long after they have played their final quarter of high school basketball.
“Not only has she taught us how to deal with tough losses and celebrated with us during big wins, but she (is) a great role for us,” said Thompson last season. “Coach has shown us how a group of kids, from all different grades, can really grow together and become a family. Not only has she given me the best years of basketball I could ask for, but she has played a major role in shaping me into the person I am today, and I could not be more thankful.”
Nearly every former player will tell you the same story. They adore her as much as she loves them, and they continue to support her and the program long after they have run their last line drill in her gym.
“She is the most unselfish person I’ve ever met,” McNeill said. “She goes out of her way to make sure that you feel like you are the most important person that she is talking to at that moment. She still checks on us when we get married, or when we are having babies or grandchildren. She is one of the first phone calls that you are going to get.”
What is most important to Sojourner is leading by Christian example. She feels that her coaching career is a vehicle to lead others to Christ.
“I am a Christian and I do my best to live it,” Sojourner told Robert Wilson in an interview for Metro Christian Living in 2013. “I’m so passionate about some things. People only see that I want to be successful because I want to win. For me, being successful is winning because God gives me the tools to be successful. I think He tells you to be the best you can be.
Even her toughness is an example of her faith.
“God is saying to me, ‘I’ve given you things Jan, now how are you going to be successful with that? And how are you going to honor that?’,” she continued in that interview. “I can’t back down and say, ‘OK, I’m not going to push this person because she’s not quite as talented and she’s not as good.’ I think that if we push a little harder, we even get better. And gosh, isn’t that what He wants from us? God gave His best, His very best. So let’s see if we can get our very best out. And to do that, sometimes it hurts. It’s not fun. I have to sit down at the end of the day and say, ‘Did I do everything that I could that He wanted me to do?”
The celebration in the Raider Dome on the night of the milestone win was unmistakable. As Bryan Eubank, the Voice of the Raiders, read a long list of accolades and presentations, a host of family, former players and friends joined Sojourner at center court for the recognition. Her “Canton girls” were there. The husband and daughter of her longtime assistant Sharon Clark, who died in November of 2019, were present. Her twin sister, Nan, was also there supportive as always.
After the game, Sojourner’s former players joined her current team in the locker room to talk about what it had been like playing for the fiery young coach.
SaId Sojourner: “I don’t think those girls can even fathom the greatness that they were standing in at that moment. I don’t know too many people that get to witness somebody winning a 1,000th game.”
Sojourner doesn’t have any thoughts on giving up her seat on the sideline. There are more players to mold and more games to win.
“Every year it breaks my heart when I have to say goodbye to my seniors because I bring them through and I get to be with them every day throughout their years,” she said. “It never fails that when I turn around and look there is another group of young players that are ready to go. They want to play. They want to be in that game. They want to experience that post-season play. They want to contend for championships. They want to compete. It’s a mindset. That’s what makes it so fun.”
Most of all, she is thankful to God for surrounding her with love, support, and success.
“This program is the program it is because of the people that have been in it and that have surrounded it. Everybody that has bought into it,” Sojourner said. “It’s been from the administration to the players to the assistant coaches and you put on top of that the blessings. The very best thing about the whole thing is that the main reason for the success is because God has had his hand on the program. He has blessed our program and that is the reason that our program is the way it is.”
Sojourner ranks second to Pillow Academy’s Durwin Carpenter in active wins in Mississippi. Carpenter has 1,114 wins in his 47th season. She ranks third all-time in career wins behind Carpenter and Doyle Wolverton, who won 1,249 games at Leake Academy from 1975-2014.
Sojourner’s 37th JA team is off to a great start. They are 13-1 and have won 12 games in a row. The only loss is to MHSAA Class 5A Vicksburg. Sojourner lost six of her top eight players from last year’s team, which finished 31-3, won the MAIS Class 5A state championship and reached the MAIS Overall semifinals. Ellis was a member of the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Girls Basketball Preseason Elite 11 Team. Emily Buchanan, a 6-foot-1 junior guard, leads the team with 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds. Nae Nae Ellis, a 5-10 senior forward and a member of the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 Team, averages 12.8 points and 5.7 rebounds. For the first time in Sojourner’s career, she is starting an eighth grader, Gracelyn Carmichael, a 6-foot forward and transfer from Laurel Christian. Sojourner has played one of her toughest schedules in her career with six games against larger public schools, winning five of those six games. JA’s next game is Monday against MHSAA Class 3A Independence in the Desoto Central Holiday Tournament.
“I’ve been pleased with our players so far, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Sojourner said. “We had many players playing different sports, so we didn’t get many of them until mid-October. And not having but two back of the top eight made it difficult, plus we have had injuries, academics, etc., going on. We are coming together over the past few weeks. The girls are doing some good things. I’m still trying to find the right mix and building chemistry. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
One of Sojourner’s current players, junior guard Lila Eubank, knows about Sojourner’s past and current success and how she developed it. She has a unique perspective, being the daughter of long time JA play by play announcer Bryan Eubank and has been coming to games since she was little.
“I believe Coach Sojourner has been so successful throughout her career because she always pushes her players past their own expectation and what they think they are capable of,” Lila Eubank said. “From my experience, she has always been big on effort, defense, and mental toughness, which all three correspond with each other. Coach Sojourner expects her players to give 110 percent, she teaches us the best way to defend, and she always tells us to push through when we’re tired. She knows the potential that her players have, and she knows what to do in order to get them there.”
Lila Eubank said this year’s team is no exception. Just like all the others, Sojourner is the glue to keep the team together and focused on doing their best.
“We had one of the best teams I have personally been a part of last year and I know others can say the same,” Eubank said. “We were led by eight seniors on and off the court who encouraged, taught, and helped the underclassmen and each other. This year we’re all learning the value of leadership. I believe Coach Sojourner has developed us as players by taking the time to teach us the little things and again push us past our own expectations. Many people, including ourselves, have doubted this team this season due to the loss of seniors and players, however we have had one consistent person that hasn’t given up and that is Coach Sojourner. She constantly teaches, and corrects, and pushes us to be the best we can be because she knows what we’re capable of even if we don’t know it. Coach Sojourner has developed us this year by not giving up and believing in us and showing us how good we can really be.”