February 21, 2013 1:22:47 PM
STARKVILLE -- Robert Gardner feels his team is ready.
Buoyed by the confidence gained from the program's first playoff victory in seven seasons, the Starkville Academy boys soccer team (15-3-2) will take on Jackson Academy at 5 p.m. today in the semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Division I tournament. The winner will take on the winner of the match between Jackson Prep and Madison-Ridgeland Academy, which also is today, at 1 p.m. Saturday.
On Monday, Starkville Academy scored all its goals in the second half en route to a 4-0 victory against Pillow Academy. Jack Burton, Jamison McKee, Zach Slaughter, and Dylan Dempsey scored to help Starkville Academy get the result it failed to earn in 3-3 and 2-2 ties against Pillow Academy in the regular season. Gardner said his team's ability to take a decisive in the playoff opener shows how far the squad has come. Today, he hopes the Volunteers can take the next step.
"I think anytime you're winning in the playoffs it is going to give you confidence," Gardner said. "We believe we are a good team, and we believe we belong where we are. We think we're good enough to play with anybody and to beat anybody, and that is not going to change no matter what the situation is Thursday night. We fully expect to carry on and give a good performance (tonight) in Jackson."
Starkville Academy hasn't played Jackson Academy this season. Gardner expects a tight game, possibly a one-goal affair, on the artificial turf field. This will be Starkville Academy's second game on turf this season. He feels the conditions will suit his players, who are accustomed to keeping possession and moving the ball on the ground.
"The players enjoy playing on turf," Gardner said. "I feel confident with our style of play that the turf is not going to hurt us."
Gardner feels his team is peaking at the right time, particularly after Monday's effort in which a strong effort by the midfield helped break the game open. Colby Runnels and Colby Henderson helped anchor the defense.
Gardner said the historical significance of the victory didn't take a load off the team's shoulders, and he doesn't believe it will give the players added confidence. "It was a team we had played twice during the season, and we thought we were better than them both times," Gardner said of Pillow Academy "I was quite pleased with our performance. I feel it does give us good momentum to beat a team so handily."
Gardner said the good sign from a four-goal showing is that his team was able to put an opponent away on a windy day. A solid midfield and organized defense have been the backbones of the team's success.
"I am not sure if the games that we tied in previous years if we would have had the grit to grind out a draw," Gardner said. "Maybe we wouldn't have had the mental toughness in years past, but that never at any point has been a problem for us this year. I am quite positive about where we are as a program. I think we certainly can carry on and continue to play through the weekend."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.