PEARL, Miss. (WLBT) - It was one of the most confusing moments in Lacey Kennedy’s life.
Her Pearl High School girls basketball team celebrating on the Jackson Coliseum floor, the gold ball was theirs after beating Terry High School to win just the program’s second state championship. For Kennedy, who had accepted the head coach position seven years prior, it was the culmination of a long journey, having won just five games in her first season at the helm.
The scene was too perfect.
Except while her players were hugging each other in Mississippi, Kennedy could not join in. Instead, she was watching it all unfold nearly eight thousand miles away on a shoddy stream on her laptop in a makeshift Starbucks in Qatar.
“I was so happy because they put it all of the work and they deserved it,” Kennedy recalls. “But I was so sad because I had dreamed my whole life of being able to be in that moment and I was watching them, who so badly deserved, and I was like ‘I should be there with them’.”
That thought crept in Kennedy’s head for much of her nine-month stint abroad.
Having enlisted in the United States Army Reserves in 2014, Kennedy received her first deployment orders in November of 2018. She achieved her one hundredth career win in the second game Pearl’s 2018-19 season and then days later she was boarding a flight to the war-torn middle east. As a human resources specialist who oversaw personnel accountability, Kennedy fortunately was never placed in any immediate danger, but it was obviously still mentally tough to be ripped away from her home, her team and her family.
Her husband Jason, who is an assistant coach on her staff and took over game day coaching duties in his wife’s absence, the basketball aspect of things was the easy part.
“The program was already in a really good spot, I was just the one in the driver’s seat at the time,” he says. “It was excruciating taking over my two kids at home and them being without mom, that was the hardest part.”
That feeling of loss was mutual with Kennedy’s players. When their head coach gathered them for a team meeting to break the news that she was leaving the country, the five stages of grief set in quickly.
“We felt like she was being taken away from us,” said senior point guard Olivia Knight. “It was so sad, just knowing that she wasn’t going to be here. There were a lot of tears, a lot of sadness."
Added Kennedy, “that was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do.”
The daughter of two Marines, serving in the military is something that Kennedy had always wanted to do.
She originally planned on enlisting right after high school, but her parents urged her to focus on her basketball career instead. Having starred at both Picayune and Enterprise High Schools, she played collegiately at Mississippi College. The idea of being on a team and working towards a common goal with people who you may not necessarily always mesh with is and always has been something Kennedy has found beauty in, whether that comes together on a basketball court or in the military.
And in a weird way, the two share largely similar ideals, which is why the winning aspect in basketball is just a benefit of what Kennedy is always trying to instill in her players.
“I didn’t get into coaching to teach about the round ball,” she says. “Something my college coach told me was that in four years, you’re not going to be dribbling a basketball, so what you learn in here is what we want to help make you successful in. Things like discipline, determination, hard work, being dependable, being able to hold someone accountable and leadership.”
The Lady Pirates leaned on all of those teachings en route to their 30-1 season that ended with a championship. There was no cheer louder that evening than the one in the locker room when the team FaceTimed Kennedy. In that moment, eight thousand miles did not seem so far away. And it wasn’t, because later that August, Kennedy’s deployment ended and, decked out in her army fatigues, she was mobbed by her players on her return.
The coach that they affectionately call “Ma” was finally back, and now, Pearl’s motivation is simple: win another championship, only this time with their head coach.
“I think we’ve got a really good shot and hopefully we can make a run at it,” says Kennedy, who has Pearl still undefeated through 21 games this season.
“The main thing is just maintaining, staying humble, staying hungry and going to work everyday.”