January 19, 2013 11:13:57 PM
STARKVILLE -- Maybe it was the artificial turf. Maybe it was the rust from a long layoff. Either way, Starkville High School boys soccer coach Brian Bennett wasn't up for excuses Friday night.
His team cruised to yet another victory against a New Hope High team it has had little trouble dispatching in the past, wrapping up another region title with another run at the Class 5A state title on the horizon.
Still, the Yellow Jackets (12-1-1, 3-0 Class 5A, Region 3) had to work doubly hard to earn their 2-1 victory against the Trojans (7-8-2, 0-3), who tied the game in brilliant fashion just one minute before the break when Parker Earhart's deep throw-in was headed to the back post by Roger Shilling.
Bennett thought his team coasted through the first half and was pleased to see his squad turn up the heat in the second, particularly in the final third, where they peppered the New Hope goal with a half-dozen second half shots. The persistence paid off with Ben Mackin's go-ahead goal in the 49th minute.
"We had a lot of shots that were right at the keeper, or we took bad angles," Bennett said. "Maybe it was the turf or being off for so long - we've played two games since the middle of December -but we've got to be better than today if we want to win another state title. Still, it was good to see us create the chances we did in the second half.
"Credit New Hope, because they played tough and were very physical."
New Hope's strategy of playing long balls to winger Nick Vaughn helped open up the Starkville defense. Though the plan gave Starkville plenty of chances to counter attack, New Hope coach Brian Meggs was pleased to see the effort help set up a score.
"Nick Vaughn, he's kind of our super duper athlete," Meggs said. "He's just one of those guys that can run and gun anywhere. We wanted our outside forwards kind of bust down, pull out the defense and give our center forward some shots. You do that with a really athletic guy like that, and he kept them on their toes tonight.
"Considering Starkville has pretty much shut out everyone they've played, getting a reward for the hard work was great," he added.
Starkville midfielder Justin Gordon said he was pleased to see his team respond after the long layoff, especially with its conditioning.
"We ran, ran and ran during the break," he said. "That's pretty much all we did. We knew we had to go harder in the second half, and we did. We responded like I knew we would."
n New Hope 2, Starkville 1: The scenario was all too familiar to the New Hope girls' soccer team.
In their second match in a week against rival Starkville, the Lady Trojans found themselves up by a goal in the first five minutes of the game. The response -- and the final result -- after the initial goal were far different the second time around.
The Lady Trojans got two goals from forward Pernille Slettestoel, the second of which broke a 1-1 deadlock in the 35th minute. But it was her first, an effort play after the referee allowed play to continue after a foul, which set the tone. Instead of becoming complacent like they did in a 4-1 loss to the Lady Jackets last week, the Lady Trojans (15-4-1) bowed up and bunkered down for a crucial district win. And with Starkville dominating possession Friday, they needed every bit of the mental toughness coach Mary Nagy hoped to see.
New Hope withstood the great linking play between midfielders Hannah Laird and Noa Hardin, who scored Starkville's lone goal in the 30th minute. Hardin had a pair of shots inside 15 yards in the second half that were easily parried away by the goalkeeper.
"(We had) a lot of problems with possession," said New Hope coach Mary Nagy. "Every time it seemed we had a breakaway, we couldn't set our feet or get a good touch. Our home field is 72 yards wide, and this field (Mississippi State University practice football field) is very narrow. That had an effect, but the girls fought because they knew playing on a narrow field and turf would be a factor tonight."
Indeed, the turf was a bugaboo for both sides, particularly New Hope, which prefers to play wide and utilize its speed on the flanks. It was the perfect test in penultimate regular season game and as the Lady Trojans prepare for the playoffs.
"It shows how, as a team, we can turn it on and decide we can do it no matter the conditions," Slettestoel said. "We had to run for a lot of balls that were too fast, but we didn't give up. It shows how strong we are."
Starkville coach Anna Albritton was disappointed with her team's inability to capitalize on possession.
"If we would have played the first half like we did the second, it would have been different," Albritton said. "I don't know what it was. Being on turf, it was a little bit faster and we had to chase the ball down a lot more than we normally do."
Slettestoel said she noticed the Lady Jackets (6-5-3, 3-1) begin to press and become disorganized as time wore on.
"I think they got a bit nervous because it was exactly the same from last week," she said. "I just thought, "I want to score and show we can do this." When we kept pushing ... you could hear them getting antsy and frustrated."
Starkville clinched the Class 5A Region 3 title on goal difference.
n On Saturday, Effie Morrison scored two goals and Reagan Hern added another in a 3-0 victory against Neshoba Central. The boys lost to Neshoba Central 3-2.
On Tuesday, the New Hope girls will play Saltillo in the first round of the Class 5A North State playoffs.
n In other action Saturday, the Caledonia High boys lost to Amorey 1-0 in a shootout and were eliminated from postseason contention.
The Caledonia High girls earned a forfeit against the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science on Friday and will play at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Lewisburg in the first round of the Class 4A North State playoffs.
n In Class 6A, Columbus' games Friday against Grenada and Saturday against Tupelo were canceled. Instead of playing both region opponents twice, coach Ben Moore said the inclement weather forced all region teams to play each other just once. As a result, Columbus clinched a playoff berth. Columbus (11-5) will play Tuesday at Clinton in the first round.