February 19, 2013 2:05:39 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Football coaches can feverishly study the weather to determine whether it is best for their team to be kicking into the wind or with the wind.
Monday afternoon the Starkville Sportsplex, Starkvile Academy learned how critical a nice gust of wind can be to a soccer match as well.
Playing with the wind in the second half, Starkville Academy won its first boys soccer playoff matches in seven years with a 4-0 shutout of Pillow Academy in the opening round of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA playoffs.
With the victory, Starkville Academy (15-3-2) will play at Jackson Academy at 3 p.m. Thursday in the semifinal round. The winner there faces Jackson Prep or Madison-Ridgeland Academy Saturday for the state championship.
"This was a real exciting match for us," Starkville Academy Zach Slaughter said. "Everybody was ready because the playoff season is a totally different animal. To win the first playoff match in seven years is a really great feeling."
Starkville and Pillow Academy played two even matches in the regular season, with the results ending in a 3-3 tie early in the year and a 2-2 tie late in the year. The series finale was also even though a scoreless first half.
Then Starkville Academy found the wind to its liking.
"It made a big difference don't kid yourself," Starkville Academy junior Jack Burton said. "In the first half, we had trouble getting any kind of offense going. We couldn't get shots. We could hardly move the ball. Coach told us to find a way to get the match to halftime."
Pillow Academy (9-6-4) held the better of the activity in the first half. The Mustangs missed golden opportunities to break the ice with both Jay Smith and Kevin Phillips missing shots from close range.
Defensively, Colby Henderson and Colby Runnels had the answers for Starkville Academy with a pair of nice deflections.
The Volunteers only managed three shots on goal in the opening half but honored their coach's wish and got the contest to halftime deadlocked.
"It is a lot easier to kick the ball with a 20 mile-per-hour wind helping you," Slaughter said. "That was really the biggest key in the match. In the first half, we were hitting the ball as hard as we could and it wouldn't go more than 15 yards. It was like a night and day difference
"Watching the match you could tell that easily."
Starkville Academy began the second half on the offensive attack. A flurry of early shots finally led to Burton scoring on a crosser from Austin Miles from about 15 yards out with about eight minutes gone by in the first half.
"You could tell the first goal lifted the whole team," Slaughter said. "It is just like scoring the first touchdown in a football game. When you were scoreless as long as we were, the first goal is a very big emotional lift.
"After we scored, we were able to take some chances on offense and open things up."
Starkville Academy coach Robert Garner really felt like this team had a great opportunity to start the second half. Burton's goal helped the Volunteers seize that opportunity.
"I was real proud of Jack because he came in and created a half yard of space for himself," Gardner said. "Then he just put his foot through the center of it. It was a just a fantastic shot into the corner."
The match's first goal opened the floodgates for the Volunteers who played loose and focused after the early score.
"After playing them to two ties, we just wanted to find a way to take the lead," Burton said. "It is like that first score changed the whole outlook of the match."
Jamison McKee scored next on assist from Matt Jones. That score gave the Volunteers much needing breathing room and came roughly another eight minutes after the initial score.
A goal by Slaughter in the 64th minute pushed the lead to 3-0, while the hosts later closed out the scoring with Dylan Dempsey scoring off a Jake Goodwin corner kick in the waning seconds.
"In the first match against Pillow, we had some injuries," Burton said. "In the second match, we should have won but didn't take advantage of our opportunities. However, we went into the match with a lot of confidence because we knew it was somebody we could play with."
The injury bug bit again Monday with senior Drew Pellum going down in the early minutes of the match.
"He is one of our leaders," Burton said. "We had to shuffle some things. It slowed us down there for a little while before we found a rhythm again."
The Volunteers have certainly been in rhythm this year. Now the task is a tall one as a victory Thursday at Jackson Academy would mean a trip to the state championship.
"In the last two seasons, we won 15 matches combined," Gardner said. "This season, we have won 15 matches in this year alone. I say that is progress. It goes to show that we have a great group of hard-working players and I am really proud of them."
Elsewhere in the MAIS playoffs Monday, Heritage Academy saw its season end with a 4-0 quaterfinal loss to Jackson Prep.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter