January 14, 2019 10:18:55 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- For the Starkville High School boys' soccer team, the mountain climb has been steep and long.
Finally Friday night at Yellow Jacket Stadium, Starkville saw its opportunity and seized the moment.
Starkville shook up the state with a 1-0 win over a Madison Central squad, which came in ranked No. 1 nationally.
The victory moved this season's Yellow Jackets to 13-2 overall and 1-1 in Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 4 play.
For this achievement, the Starkville soccer team is being recognized today as The Dispatch's Prep Players of the Week.
Starkville is now on the doorstep of advancing to postseason play for the first time in six seasons of Class 6A competition.
"It just felt great," Starkville coach J.T. Coward said. "All year, we have talked about competing for a full match. This team has a lot of heart. They play aggressive soccer. They work well together. However, sometimes you lack confidence for whatever reason. Friday night, I felt like we were locked in from the beginning of the match."
Getting the buy-in may have been more difficult than usual Friday night. Madison Central entered the match as a heavy favorite for this season's state championship. The Jaguars won 6-0 on Dec. 7 in Madison.
"After we fell down 2-0 in that match, I felt like we really gave up," Coward said. "That's what we were preaching all week in practice leading up to the rematch. Just compete. Just play hard. Don't get down. Fight until the final whistle. Really thought we did a great job of that."
Starkville has struggled to gain a foothold in the Class 6A landscape. With arguably the state's two best programs in the region -- Madison Central and Northwest Rankin -- in the region, a playoff berth has been a pipe dream, at best.
That finally changed when junior Maverick Brasher scored from about 20 feet out roughly 20 minutes into the match. While there was still three-fourths of the match to be played, the whole outlook for the Starkville season changed on a dime.
"It was like years of frustration went away," Coward said. "Scoring first changed everything. It just gave the team a totally different level of confidence. After that, it was play defense and hold on."
Junior defender Peyton Rogers had the shutout in goal. Coward calls Rogers "easily the team's best player" and a "Division I soccer prospect."
Coward estimates that Rogers had 15 saves in the win Friday night. The biggest save came when a free kick was turned away in the final minute of play.
"We are built on defense," Coward said, "We have a strong backline and we are set in goal. So once we can get some momentum going in a match, we play well. You could tell we got Madison Central frustrated. They were bickering. They were having a hard time getting quality shots on goal."
The Starkville squad is a mix of veterans and talented newcomers. The Yellow Jackets have six seniors. However, sophomore Lawson Dale leads the team with 19 goals scored, while eighth grader Ethan Pulliam is next with five goals.
While he does not normally figure into the offensive attack, Coward was proud of Brasher's goal.
"(Brasher) never stops running," Coward said. "He goes everything, going 110 percent. Sometimes, he goes too hard and his teammates complain. However, that is just the type of kid he is. He goes hard after every challenge. Overall, we aren't a big team, not tall at all. But we are super aggressive and we have good leadership. This team always shows a lot of heart."
Starkville's other loss was a 4-1 setback to No. 2 Tupelo on Dec. 18.
With both matches against Madison Central now in the books, the region schedule wraps up with a match apiece against Murrah and Northwest Rankin each of the next two weeks.
A victory over Madison Central gives the team a huge leg up in trying to make the playoffs. Two of the region's four teams will qualify.
"Northwest Rankin may have taken a step back this year," Coward said. "They still have an excellent team, but we should be able to line up and compete. After beating Madison Central, the kids are hungry. They know we can do what we need to do the rest of the way to get in."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.