Photo by Brad Bridges

By Robert Wilson

       When Ava Antonaros – Jackson Academy’s only senior starter and 5-foot-10 keeper – is in the goal, the Lady Raiders’ chances of winning increases dramatically.

       And Antonaros – who shares her time with the four-time defending state volleyball champion Lady Raiders in the fall – was in goal Monday night for the MAIS Division I state championship.

       The result was a 2-1 victory over defending state champion and rival Jackson Prep before an estimated 1,500 fans at Madison-Ridgeland Academy’s BankPlus Stadium in Madison.

       No. 2 seed JA finished 13-7 overall and won its final seven games. This was JA’s sixth girls state title in school history (Nic Henderson won one in 2009, Robert Gardner won three in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and Phillip Buffington won in 2021 and this season). No. 1 seed Prep finished 17-3, two of those losses to JA.

       JA and Prep have won the state title every year since 2012 when MRA defeated Prep.

       JA coach Phillip Buffington – one of the best high school soccer players in Mississippi history when he played at Prep under coach Jon Marcus Duncan in the mid-2000s – defeated his former coach for the third time in a state championship game (two girls and one boys). Buffington has now won four state titles (two girls and two boys) in his five seasons as head coach at JA.

       “The last three weeks the girls have battled and pushed through all the ups and downs we’ve had throughout the season and focused in on our goal at the start of the season, which was to win a state championship,” Buffington said. “Every single one of our girls played with great intensity when on the field, which in turn lead to us getting a win last night.”

Duncan also was denied his 15th girls state title.

“It was definitely a tough one,” Duncan said. “I really liked our energy and offensive chances early in the game. Unfortunately, we couldn’t grab a goal. I thought JA really brought a physical presence to the game in terms of winning 50/50 balls.”

Duncan, a Prep and Mobile College graduate, has 28 state titles (14 girls and 14 boys) and has an 810-162-58 record – an amazing 83.3 winning percentage – and is second in combined career wins in Mississippi history. He has a 439-76-27 boys record and a 371-86-31 girls record. Karl Friedrich, who finished with 831 victories in 32 seasons at Harrison Central, is the career leader in Mississippi.

This was the sixth straight season the two teams played for the state championship. No. 2 seed Prep defeated No. 1 seed Jackson Academy 2-0 last season after splitting two regular season games last season. Torrey Polk and Emma Reeves scored one goal each in the second half and Maggie Bailey and the Prep defense kept JA scoreless.

       But Monday night was JA’s night. Sophomore midfielder Izzy Scott – JA’s leader in goals and assists this season – gave JA a 1-0 lead with 10 minutes to play in the first half. Junior forward Aubrey Edmonson scored (assist by sophomore midfielder Ella King) for a 2-0 lead midway into the second half. Prep answered in less than a minute when junior forward Claire Crosby – daughter of Prep athletic director Will Crosby – scored to cut the lead to 2-1.

       “Izzy once again was a big piece for us and scored a great goal after setting into a slow start to the game, then took over in the second half for us going forward,” Buffington said.

       Said Duncan: “It’s always hard to fight back after going down 2-0, but our girls made a great response. We pressed extremely hard after the goal to try and get the equalizer but couldn’t break their defense down.”

       And JA’s defense and Antonaros, who has committed to Mississippi College in volleyball, was solid. Consider this: Prep didn’t have a corner kick until the 47th minute, seven minutes into the second half. Antonaros used her tall frame and long reach to deflect several possible Prep goals. Prep’s only goal from Crosby came in a very difficult angle that slipped between the goal post and Antonaros into the goal.

       While Antonaros was in goal, JA only lost one game -to Prep – this season.

       “Ava doesn’t second guess herself and just trusts her instincts in every moment,” Buffington said. “She hasn’t played keeper in five years but had a knack for always being in the right spot she needed to be more often than not. Our back line of (sophomore) Gracelynn Carmichael, (freshman) Mylee Maurer, (sophomore) Ebbie Barbour, (sophomore) Madi Brewer, (sophomore) Caroline Quin once again played exceptional in front of Ava. The goal Prep scored was the first one scored on us in the last three weeks of the season.”

       While JA had its best keeper in goal, Prep didn’t. Freshman Maggie Bailey missed the championship game with concussion issues since a collision against Madison St. Joseph on Sept. 25.

       “Maggie was our biggest injury being under concussion protocol,” Duncan said. “(Sophomore) Cloe McDaniel played goalkeeper and did great, but we had to turn her into a keeper in 10 days, a tall task.”

       Junior forward Abby Duncan – Coach Duncan’s daughter – was slowed by an ankle injury and senior Emily Van Uden returned for the state championship game for the first time since breaking her collarbone in the first game against JA in August. In addition, Duncan lost junior Maddie Caldwell with an ACL injury in the first game of the season.

       “I’m so proud of this team,” Duncan said. “This injury bug really took its toll on us this year, especially late. Our girls never flinched and played for each other and this program. They fought to the end. That’s all I can ask from a team. This was a special team. It is always hard to lose the last one, but it just wasn’t our night. Congratulations to Coach Buffington and his team. They had a great season.”

       JA, like Prep, has the majority of its starters returning next season and are shooting to win two straight state titles. Prep had JA have alternated winning state titles for the past four seasons.

       Said Buffington: “Our expectation with the group returning is once again to compete for and hopefully defend a state championship.”