The Jackson Academy Lady Raiders and the Madison-Ridgeland Academy Lady Patriots played for the MAIS Volleyball State Championship at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss., on Wednesday, October 18, 2023. Photo by Chris Todd

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By Robert Wilson
Photos by Chris Todd

       Jackson Academy’s six seniors – led by Libero and Southern Miss commitment Kaylee Lowther – weren’t going to be denied their fifth straight MAIS Division I volleyball state championship.

       Said JA coach Melissa Denson: “My seniors looked at the girls and said, ‘We are doing this.’”

       And they did just that.

       JA scored five of the last six points in the final and deciding fifth set to defeat Madison-Ridgeland Academy 15-11 to clinch the five-peat Wednesday night in a rematch of last year’s state title on Mike Jones Court before an estimated 400 fans at Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum in Clinton.

       It was the closest Division I state volleyball title match in the 12-year history of the event, the first time a Division I championship game had been extended to five sets.

       MRA won the first set 25-23, JA won the next two 25-16 and 25-17 and MRA won the fourth set 25-23 to set up the exciting finish.

       Not until JA 6-foot-2 freshman outside hitter Carson Caraway’s winning shot dropped in on MRA’s side just over the net could the Lady Raiders celebrate. MRA led 11-10 before JA scored four consecutive points to take a 14-11 lead. After MRA closed the gap to 14-12, JA scored the winning point.

       The six seniors – Lowther, middle blocker Megahn Ellis, outside hitter Ava Anatonarus, right side Madilyn Ray, setter Harper Griffin and defensive specialist Mallory Brooks – finished their high school careers with a fifth consecutive state title and JA’s ninth in the last 10 years. Antonarus, a Mississippi College commitment in volleyball, accomplished a rare double, also winning a MAIS Division I soccer championship last week as a goalkeeper for JA.

       JA finished with a 35-13 record – an 18-1 mark against MAIS teams – and defeated MRA for the second time in three meetings this season. JA had 15 shutouts in those 19 MAIS matches. MRA gave JA its only MAIS loss – a 3-0 decision Aug. 18 at MRA, the first time MRA had defeated JA in school history. The Lady Raiders had 55 consecutive wins against MAIS competition and 43 straight wins against Mississippi teams (MAIS and MHSAA) before that loss.

       MRA – which had a 30-match winning streak during the season – finished with a 41-7 record, the most wins in school history.

       MRA came into the match ranked No. 4 and JA No. 6 in Mississippi by MaxPreps. Three of JA’s losses were to No. 1 Brandon, No. 2 Lewisburg, and No. 3 Ocean Springs.

       Denson expected the championship game against MRA to be a tough one to win.

       “It was a hard-fought match on both sides,” said Denson, who has a 222-41 record in her sixth season at JA, and 261-68 career record in eight seasons, the first two at Clinton High. “It was a true championship. MRA is a great team, and it was a back and forth. Going into the fifth set, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We expected it to be a battle and we knew our mindset had to be steady. Don’t ride the highs too high and don’t let the lows shake up us too much.

       “Ava, Carson and (6-2 junior outside hitter and Southern Miss commitment) Sophie (Sosa) led us offensively. Defensively on the net, Sosa, Meghan, (junior middle blocker) Ava McManus, and (junior outside hitter) Sarah Breyden Moulder did a phenomenal job slowing down the ball with the block to allow our defense to have a chance. Kaylee led defensively in the back row. (Madison Central transfer and sophomore setter) Keira (Hariel) and Harper also did a great job defensively and making adjustments to their set choices. Keira had the best game I’ve seen her play all year.”

       Even though JA loses six seniors, the Lady Raiders are expected to make a run at a sixth straight state title, led by Sosa, Caraway and Hariel.

       “We are losing six amazing seniors but have an extremely talented junior varsity team that’s been pushed into varsity tournaments, won the JV IVBA tournament and the MAIS State JV tournament,” Denson said. “I’ve had girls training from that team all year and some even stepped in during our hardest matches in tournaments and got so much experience.”

MRA loses only one senior – outside hitter and Itawamba Community College commitment Mclaine Dorr and daughter of MRA coach Ross Dorr – and could be back in the state title match again next season. The rest of the talented MRA team – including 6-foot-5 sophomore middle blocker Alyssa Dampier, daughter of former Lawrence County High, Mississippi State and NBA basketball star Erick Dampier and Ross’ other daughter, freshman setter Emerson Dorr, and freshman setter Ella Eatherly – return to try to win its first state championship. Dampier, 6-foot junior outside hitter Fallon Humphries and junior Libero Chloe Carr are being recruited by colleges.

“We have only one senior so our future looks good,” Dorr said. “We have two dynamic freshmen (Dorr and Eatherly) who will only get stronger as they grow. The MRA program is definitely growing, and we are in the conversation now of top teams in the state. The next goal on the white board is dethrone JA.”