January 22, 2013 11:24:19 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
Starkville High girls soccer coach Anna Albritton feels her squad is battle-tested.
Starkville will find out if that is good enough for postseason success at 6 tonight when it plays host to Oxford in the opening round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
The Starkville boys will play host to Saltillo at 6 p.m. Wednesday in their first-round game.
While a challenging schedule left the Starkville girls at 6-5-3 entering the postseason, Albritton feels like her squad is in position to play its best soccer.
"We played a tournament in Jackson, where we played West Jones, Florence, and West Harrison. These are the teams who are traditionally good," Albritton said. "We tried to get that experience. We played a really good Amory team as well. We lost two and tied one in Jackson. We split with Amory. We split with New Hope, so we played some of the elite teams and we were right there. You do that to get ready for the postseason. It has been an up-and-down year, but we are a really young team. We only really play three seniors."
Albritton said the key with a young team was to get exposed to high-level soccer during the season. Even when the team struggled, it fought its way back in the next match.
"I really would like to have played better during the course of the season," Albritton said. "Even though we were young, we had a fair amount of experience returning, so you really thought you would play better at times. That doesn't matter now. We simply want to go out and play hard."
Last season, Starkville beat Oxford 1-0 in the regular season and lost 2-0 in the second round of the playoffs. The loss came after the Lady Jackets won a home playoff game for the first time in the opening round.
"Oxford lost most of their players from that team, so they are relatively young, too," Albritton said. "There is a lot less familiarity than we had last season. Basically, we just challenged the kids to go out, play hard, and to play to the best of their abilities."
Freshman Cailee Helen McClain leads the team in scoring. Fellow junior striker Noa Hardin also has brought punch to the lineup after missing the early part of the season with injury.
"Noa being out really hurt us, and that helped lead to the slow start," Albritton said. "We are a much better offensive team with her out there."
Sophomore Hannah Laird anchors the center mid position. Junior Alex Mazzola is a key defender. Eighth-grader Camryn Dawkins is the squad's goalkeeper.
"Even though Camryn is an eighth-grader, she has played beyond her years in goal," Albritton said. "I actually allowed her to be part of our captains this year. I never had done that before (with an eighth-grader). But she sees the game from a different perspective. She is a leader and coach out there."
Starkville lost to New Hope 2-1 on Friday in its regular-season finale, but still won the Region 3 title by goal differential. New Hope will travel to Saltillo in another first-round match tonight. Oxford is 8-6 after a second-place finish in Region 2.
While the Lady Jackets will look for one final push, the squad will be gaining experience for seasons to come. Albritton cautions those seasons will be more difficult, especially with a move next season to Class 6A .
"We are going to be good the next couple of years," Albritton said. "Unfortunately, we move to Class 6A. That means Madison Central and Northwest Rankin will be in our region. We can't look that far ahead. For now, we are in Class 5A, the playoffs are here, and we need to make the most of this opportunity."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter