January 24, 2013 10:15:09 AM
STARKVILLE -- Dylan Howard knows he isn't the biggest player any time he is on the field.
But Howard plays with a confidence that ignores the fact that, as he says, he "doesn't have any size on me." That confidence helps him maneuver through the midfield with a fluidity that maximizes every movement and enables him to control the most important part of the field.
Howard's ability to orchestrate an attack was on full display Wednesday as he had one goal and two assists in the Starkville High School boys soccer team's 6-0 victory against Saltillo in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
With the victory, Starkville (15-1-1), the defending Class 5A state champion, advances to play host to Hernando at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Starkville girls will take on Center Hill at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Juan Salazar and Taylor Wise each had two goals, while Justin Gordon added another.
"We use our touch to our advantage rather than our size," Howard said. "More than anything, I started out juggling. Juggling is my main thing. I am obviously not going to be the biggest guy, but I like being smaller than most guys. They never see it coming."
Howard's first goal Wednesday night was a perfect example. Ren Effenberger, Christian Kingery, and Arman Borazjani worked together to push the Yellow Jackets into the attacking third. A chip from Borazjani, who had just entered the game as a substitute, from the right side allowed Howard to make a diagonal cut through the middle. His near-post run put him in position to re-direct the ball to the far post to give Starkville a 1-0 lead.
Howard showcased his ability to set the table later in the half when he stole the ball and fed Salazar. The junior used his speed to beat the defense to the ball and then delivered a hard, right-footed shot to the low corner.
Gordon made it 3-0 with a little less than three minutes to go in the first half before Howard put another stamp on the match. Howard used deft touch to work past defenders on the right side. He moved to his left into the box and crashed into a defender. He regained his balance and possession in time to reverse his field and find Wise, who tucked it home for a 4-0 halftime edge.
Wise, a senior, said Howard has helped anchor a midfield that includes Gordon, who he said is one of the fastest players in the state. He said Howard is "one of the best distributors of the ball" he has seen. He has played with Howard ever since youth soccer, so he is accustomed to his teammate affecting a play or a game with the slightest movement.
"He is so smooth with the ball and has such a good touch that it seems like he is out there not even trying," Wise said. "He is like my little brother out there. I am with him almost every minute of the day. There is not much closer I can be to him."
Starkville High School coach Brian Bennett praised Howard's play, saying the senior is an anchor around which a lot of things revolve.
"It's his touch on the ball," Bennett said. "Kase (Kingery, who played soccer as a freshman at Missouri State University in 2012) was here for so long and was one of the best I saw. Dylan has maybe gotten a touch better than Kase, and that is saying something. He is so confident and he is smooth. He does things with the ball that are amazing."
Howard also showed he can affect a game when he isn't scoring or dishing out assists. Despite his lack of size, Howard showed he knows how to use his body by working back into a defender just enough not to draw a foul. His movement allowed him to dispossess his opponent and to take control.
"He seems like he is on cruise control half of the time, and he is always doing the right thing and making something happen," Itawamba Community College soccer coach Mike Sullivan said. "But you know he is still working hard running things. He doesn't have to look like he is working hard to work hard."
Earlier this month, Howard signed a scholarship to play soccer at Itawamba Community College, where he will join friend Ricky Hackler, who plays at Columbus High. Sullivan attended the game Wednesday night and said he is looking forward to having Howard as a key part of his midfield later this year.
"He is calm. He is like a silent killer," Sullivan said. "You never really see him flustered. He is exactly what we're looking for. He is always in control, always in command. He is so fluid all of the time. He really runs this team from what I can tell. He has a bunch of great players around him, but he is definitely the quarterback of this group. He really gets them moving in the right direction. He is going to be a really good college player."
Howard is excited about taking the next step, but he and the Yellow Jackets have unfinished business. He said earlier in the season the team is using its 2012 title as motivation this year. If Wednesday is any indication, Starkville should have plenty to fuel another title run.
"I came out tonight thinking I didn't want this to be my last high school game," Howard said. "I signed with ICC, so I have college to fall back on, but I have older friends who told me how much they miss high school soccer, so I am trying to get the most out of it."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.