He’s been the architect for bringing the Olive Branch High School girls’ basketball program to levels it has never seen before.
In his five years at the helm, Blake Jones has led the Lady Quistors to the MHSAA 6A state championship game in two of the last three years, benefiting from a youthful group of talent featuring Mississippi’s two-time reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in point guard Myah Taylor. The same group has achieved notoriety by being nationally ranked on several occasions by different ratings services, including USA Today and Maxpreps.com.
But, on the cusp of getting that group to another run at achieving the game’s “Gold Ball” state championship trophy, Jones is leaving DeSoto County to assume a similar position at Biloxi High School, where he hopes to replicate the same success on the Gulf Coast.
Jones’ hiring was approved by the Biloxi district Board of Education at their meeting Tuesday night. He officially resigned his Olive Branch position on Wednesday and will be introduced in Biloxi as its new coach later next week.
He will teach physical education and be involved in "credit recovery" classes aimed to help students catch up on the credits they need to graduate.
The move comes as a shock to many surrounding the program, such as Myah's father John Taylor, who himself was a successful coach leading the Mississippi Elite AAU girls to an eighth-grade national championship in 2013 with Myah among its players.
"I know what he has accomplished at Olive Branch in the past three years," Taylor said. "As a parent, you hate to see somebody leave for your daughter's senior year. But, he had a great relationship with the players and I think that helped us succeed."
When he was hired in Olive Branch eight years ago, Jones was also an assistant boys' basketball coach, ninth-grade and junior varsity boys' basketball coach, assistant volleyball coach and coached tennis teams to three division championships and state meet visits each year he was involved with the program.
Jones became head girls' basketball coach five years ago.
A search committee was already in the process of receiving resumes to find a replacement.
Jones said he was not actively seeking a new job, but the lure of college buddies, including Biloxi assistant football coach Zack Green, enticed him to look more closely at the opening.
“They talked me into driving down there and one thing led to another,” Jones said. “It just seemed right. It’s nothing Olive Branch did wrong. The administration and the people I know here I’ll never forget. The timing is everything.”
Another draw to the Coast comes from Biloxi football coach Bobby Hall, a long-time coach who came to Biloxi one year after retiring from Madison Central following the 2014 season to lead the Indians this past season.
"Bobby Hall was the head coach at Amory, when I went to high school," Jones said. "When I graduated and went to Northeast (Community College), he took the head job there. I never played football, but they were members of our church, he and his family, and he and my dad got to be really good friends."
Both Hall and Green encouraged Jones to consider the girls' basketball job, which became open after Martha Bradley-Hall coached the Indians to an 11-17 record this season.
At Olive Branch, Jones' Lady Quistors fashioned a career mark of 111-40. A victory on Mississippi State University's Humphrey Coliseum floor against Starkville this year was win number 100. This year's team finished with a 27-3 record, but the year was ended by a 76-54 playoff loss to Starkville in the second round of the MHSAA 6A playoffs.
Win number 100 came in a holiday tournament the Lady Quistors played in against top-notch competition that Jones tried to get his team involved with each year. He was not shy about getting his players into tournaments and summer camps he thought would help them improve their game.
"By doing, that he showed that he really cared about his girls and we all knew that," said Myah, a Mississippi State commit entering her senior season next year. "He always tried to get us recognized and to play against the best of the best."
His 2014-15 squad was 32-2, setting a school mark for wins, just one year after a 2013-14 team had set a record with a 27-7 record. Both seasons ended on the floor at Jackson's Mississippi Coliseum that final night against Horn Lake.
But, the records were achieved with young players who brought talent beyond their grade level to the basketball floor every night, led by a coach who was also young of age, but strong on a desire to see his team succeed.
"That first year we were in Jackson (2014 state tournament) I was the youngest coach in the whole field," Jones said. "I was 31 years old. We were the youngest team with the youngest coach. That's something I won't forget."
That first trip to the tournament in Jackson, Jones said, is probably his best memory of his time in Olive Branch.
"It was my first time as a coach and Olive Branch's first time in Jackson," Jones said. "We started a new precedent and raised the bar, so to speak, which led into national rankings. That's good recognition."
Now, Biloxi hopes Jones can bring the same success he enjoyed in Olive Branch to the Coast.
"In the playoffs, they lost to Ocean Springs by only five points and that tells me there's something to work with there," Jones said. "The girls can work hard and they'll need to spend extra time in the gym."
Meanwhile, the Olive Branch job has become a prime target for coaches to apply for. The search committee already received 60 resumes in the short time it has been available. It's hoped a new coach will be hired before school lets out in May.
Taylor said the Lady Quistors are still committed to winning a state championship before she leaves next year for Starkville and SEC women's basketball.
"We're going to miss him, but next year is my last year and we're going to try and get a Gold Ball," Taylor said.
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.