Starkville Academy’s Brody Pierce heads a ball Thursday against Heritage Academy in the semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Division III State tournament in Columbus. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff Buy this photo.
Starkville Academy’s Ben Guest, right, and Heritage Academy’s Todd Sharp jockey for position to control a loose ball Thursday afternoon in the first half of their match at C.L. Mitchell Field in Columbus.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff Buy this photo.
February 23, 2018 10:56:55 AM
Brody Pierce turned a bad angle into a good one with a single strike.
After creating problems on the left flank throughout the first half, Pierce did what all goal scorers do: He went to the ball. What followed was the result of a well-timed kick at just the right angle.
Pierce's goal with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half Thursday proved to be the difference in the Starkville Academy boys soccer's team's 1-0 victory against Heritage Academy in the semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Division III State tournament at C.L. Mitchell Field in Columbus.
Pierce collected a loose ball off a throw-in on right flank and then moved forward as far as he could. He said he felt confident he put enough on his shot from near the top of the goal box back to the far post to pay dividends.
"The ball was on the other side (of the field), so I had to do my job and fill in and score," Pierce said. "You always got to go get it.
"The goalie is a good keeper, so I had to shoot fast or he would have gotten it."
Starkville Academy (9-7) will play St. Aloysius Catholic School, which beat Central Hinds Academy 2-1 on Wednesday, at 6 p.m. Saturday at the MSU Soccer Field in Starkville.
The North team has earned the right to play host to the state title match. Starkville Academy typically plays its home matches at the Starkville Sportsplex, but rain earlier this week and in the forecast for today and Saturday forced the match to be moved.
Last season, Starkville Academy beat Heritage Academy in the semifinals and lost to Central Hinds Academy 5-0 in the state title match. The Volunteers lost seven seniors from that team. JoJo Dodd took over as coach for Matt Sykes.
Dodd said the tough results early in the season tested Starkville Academy, especially the eighth-graders on the back line.
"It has been a season of playing teams that are better than us to get the defense ready for tonight," Dodd said. "They didn't know it then. The losses were tough early in the season, but tonight was proof of why that happened and the reason we went through that spell of really hard games."
Junior Ben Guest and eighth-graders Grant Smith, Andrew Pollan, and Brody Bennett helped anchor the defense in front junior goalkeeper Zak Kelly (six saves). Dodd said it has been "pick your eighth-grader" on defense because four or five of them have played on defense. He said Dylan Miller, who played in the midfield Thursday, also has seen time on the back line.
"They were amazing," Kelly said of his defense. "I always expect big things from them because they always bring it. I don't have a doubt in my world about my defense."
Even though Kelly is an upperclassmen, Dodd said this is his first year playing soccer. He was in position all match and used his height when he needed to on high shots or services into the box. Kelly made his biggest save of the match with less than four minutes remaining when he blocked a shot by Todd Sharp off a pass from Lex Rogers. Rogers then slid a shot just wide of the left post 20 seconds later.
"Zak has incredibly improved," Dodd said. "It is hard to argue that tonight after his saves. The defense played well, but they had some shots, and they have some good players on their team. It was a tough 1-0 win."
Heritage Academy Joe Asadi praised Starkville Academy and said his team struggled to find its rhythm coming off an 8-0 victory against Bayou Academy on Monday. Two shots that deflected off the crossbar in the first half didn't help matters. In the second half, the Patriots had a 7-1 edge in shots on goal, but they couldn't sustain pressure or string passes together to deliver more quality scoring chances.
Goalkeeper Wade Lawrie is the only senior on the roster for Heritage Academy, which beat Starkville Academy twice in the regular season to claim the district title.
On Saturday, Starkville Academy will try to use its youth to finish a three-game run to a championship.
"We have been focused on getting better for this game because we knew we were going to see them again," Dodd said. "We were ready for tonight."
Dodd said Pierce, a freshman, was a member of the school's boys basketball team, so he wasn't always with the soccer team during the season. He said he saw flashes from Pierce earlier in the season, so it was satisfying to see him deliver for longer stretches in a winner-go-home match.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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