By Robert Wilson
Jackson Academy’s volleyball team accomplished a lot last season: won its third straight MAIS state championship and seventh in the past eight years, finished with a 38-8 record and ranked No. 1 in Mississippi by PrepVolleyball.com and No. 9 in the South by USA Today.
But the Lady Raiders didn’t win the Southern Classic tournament, hosted by Infinity Volleyball in Ridgeland. They lost to Ocean Springs in the semifinals.
Said JA coach Melissa Denson: “My girls really wanted it this season.”
JA – led by 2021 All-American, Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and Auburn commitment Lakin Laurendine – went 8-0 and only lost two sets to finish as the champions. The Lady Raiders played in the “power” pool against the best teams in the tournament and defeated four MHSAA Class 6A team, Gulfport 2-0, Desoto Central 2-0, Madison Central 2-1 and Ocean Springs 2-0. Then JA defeated Madison-Ridgeland Academy 2-0 in the round of 16, Ocean Springs 2-1 in the quarterfinals, Madison Central 2-0 in the semifinals and defending MHSAA Class 6A state champion Brandon 2-0 in the championship match. Madison Central and Ocean Springs were 6A state semifinalist last season.
JA improved to 10-0 this season after defeating MAIS Class 6A Presbyterian Christian and MRA to two regular season games.
Denson wants her girls to play against the best competition possible.
“It’s important to challenge ourselves and play the best teams to continue to improve,” said Denson, who is in her fifth season at JA. “Beating the (public school) 6A teams showed my girls what they were capable of and set the standard for the level we want to play at all year. The girls learned how to work through struggles and loss and pulled together as a team. We played some high-level games and were able to give some younger players some experience.”
With the two wins over MRA, JA has a 39-match winning streak against MAIS teams, dating back to a regular season loss at Hartfield Academy in 2020.
The 6-foot-2 Laurendine, a senior outside hitter, likes the tournament competition.
“Playing all of these 6A public school teams in this tournament gives us great opportunities to play teams not only in the MAIS,” said Laurendine, who is rated as one of the Top 23 players in the country in the Class of 2023 by volleyballrecruiter.com. “Being able to come back this year and beat Ocean Springs twice after coming up short to team last year in this exact same tournament is such a great feeling. These types of events are super important to our team because it helps us grow as a team on and off the court and prove to people that we are the best in the state.”
Laurendine is one of four returning starters from last year’s state championship team. JA has six players 6-1 or better. One of those who isn’t in that group, 5-4 junior Libero Kaylee Lowther, a transfer from MHSAA Class 6A Germantown High, committed to Southern Miss Friday.
The national, regional, and state rankings won’t be out until late August, but JA will likely be mentioned somewhere in those.
JA’s next match is Tuesday against MAIS Class 5A Lamar at home. The Lady Raiders haven’t lost a home match to a MAIS team since Denson arrived at JA in 2018.