January 23, 2013 3:54:41 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Instead of backing away from its status as defending state champions, the Starkville High boys' soccer team has embraced that role.
"Winning the championship last year has given this year's a totally different confidence," Starkville coach Brian Bennett said. "We had been so close. To finally get over the hump has allowed the kids to play with a lot more confidence. I think they are very excited about another chance (at a state championship)."
The road to a state title defense begins at 6 p.m. tonight when Starkville plays host to Saltillo in the opening round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs. The winner will face either Hernando or Callaway in a second-round match Saturday.
Starkville enters postseason play with a 12-1-1 overall record. The Yellow Jackets secured the Class 5A, Region 3 crown with a 3-0 record. Starkville only allowed six goals the entire season, including only two scores allowed by sophomore keeper Michael Godley.
"The returning guys weren't real sure after last season was over, because we lost so many really good seniors," Bennett said. "After the first practice, they knew we had a chance to make another run. We added some really good players and more players came out. It was a situation where the returning players looked at what was around us and they knew we could have a successful season."
Junior Juan Salazar leads Starkville with 16 goals scored. Senior Taylor Wise is next with 11 scores. Junior
Justin Gordon scored the lone goal in last season's 1-0 state championship win over Pascagoula. Bennett said Gordon is playing his best soccer of the season right now.
"Justin has totally been on fire here of late," Bennett said. "He gives us one more really good threat on offense. Justin has played some midfield and some forward. He does so many things well and gives us a lift in a lot of different areas on offense."
Senior Dylan Howard has provided a spark from the center-mid position.
"We returned almost all of our offense from last season," Bennett said. "Defensively, we are sophomore-laden in the back. Junior Charlie Henderson is really the only returnee back there. The success for our team has come with the players in the back really growing up and maturing. Even though we are young back there, they work well together and have really become major contributors."
Bennett also says another key to this year's team is depth.
"Our depth is so much better than it was a year ago," Bennett said. "The young players have stepped up. We can sub at so many positions and not lose anything. We do a lot of interchanging. Really, we have been able to wear down most of our opponents."
For Starkville, the lone obstacles took place in the Mississippi Showcase on Dec. 1. The Yellow Jackets dropped a 2-0 decision to Brandon and battled Florence to a 1-1 tie. From there, the defense has developed and the offense has continued to deliver. Starkville will carry a five-game win streak into the playoffs.
"We have played well all season," Bennett said. "If we continue to get our regular number of scoring chances, we should be in good shape against any opponent in the field."
Starkville won four postseason matches for a first-ever state title last season.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter