January 29, 2013 10:08:43 AM
STARKVILLE -- Brian Bennett and Anna Albritton will be in different positions tonight, but both will hope for the same result.
While the Starkville High School boys soccer team will rely on the experience it gained from its state title run in 2012, the Starkville High girls will try not to let the enormity of the moment get to them. The teams will face those challenges at 6 p.m. on the road in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title matches.
For the Starkville boys (16-1-1), a matchup against Oxford at Bobby Holcomb Field will be their next-to-last step en route to defending their first boys soccer championship in school history. While the boys will go north, the Starkville girls will head south to take on Ridgeland, which won the 2012 title and has eight championships.
"I can tell the guys who were here last year are a lot more relaxed than they were last year," said Bennett, the Starkville High boys coach. "The new guys are a pretty confident bunch, too. The tempo is probably a little more relaxed."
Starkville, which is coming off a 2-0 victory against Hernando, should be familiar with Oxford. The Chargers beat the Yellow Jackets 2-0 at the end of the 2012 regular season before Starkville regrouped for another trip north and earned a 4-2 victory in the North State semifinals. It dispatched Hernando 3-1 in the North State title match before defeating Pascagoula 1-0 to win its first championship.
Starkville lost eight seniors, including its entire defense, from the title squad, but a strong sophomore class has blended nicely with upperclassmen to put the team in position to repeat. A year ago, Bennett said the team was in a tighter situation considering it lost to Oxford in the regular season. He said focus will be a key tonight in hostile territory.
"If we can just stay within ourselves and not get too worried about everything, that is our strength," Bennett said. "We didn't play for so long (at the start of 2013). We didn't play real well in the New Hope game (at the end of the regular season), but these last two playoff games we have probably played as well as we have played. The Saltillo game (a 6-0 victory) really got us clicking.
"I don't think we are playing our best yet. If we can pick that up this week, that would be a good time for it."
On the girls side, Anna Albritton feels tonight is as good a time as any to make history. Coming off a 2-0 victory against Center Hill on Sunday, Albritton hopes to have a healthier lineup. The Lady Yellow Jackets played without starting defender Megan Moorhead and sophomore defender/midfielder Meghan Wolf. Albritton praised the play of Erin Foster, who stepped in for Wolf. She feels her players will be ready for the challenge of knocking off a defending state champion.
"It is the first time in the program's history we have made it to the North Half, and they are excited about that," Albritton said. "We wanted them to enjoy it. They know they made history, and our jobs are to make sure they have their heads straight on, and that they are ready to take that next step, and it is a big step."
Albritton said the Yellow Jackets celebrated their victory with a cinnamon king cake decked out purple, yellow, and green. She said the coaches talked about what the players accomplished in getting to this point and are eager to see if the players can extend their season and, possibly, get a chance to east some more cake. At "less than 100 percent," Albritton said her players have shuffled positions and made up for not being at full strength. She said the will power the players have exhibited gives her confidence a long bus ride won't take away from their focus. It's a mentality she has seen in her team since a 2-1 loss to New Hope in the regular-season finale. Starkville beat New Hope 4-1 in the first meeting to earn the district title on goal differential.
"Something happened after that New Hope game," Albritton said. "They just all had to play that mental game. That's part of growing up, and some of them really had to get the mental aspect of the game going. The look in their eyes changed. It sounds kind of cheesy when a coach says, 'I can tell it in their eyes,' but there is something there when they're looking at you an they're soaking up everything you're saying. You can see it in their eyes because they really want it.
"I don't know if I have ever experienced that as a coach with a team. Their eyes were so big and they want it. You can just see there is something there that they want it so bad."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.