SHS goal keeper Addison Watson, middle, gets in position to stop a Hernando challenge. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
The soccer season was hanging in the balance for Starkville High School at halftime of Tuesday night's Class 5A match against Hernando.
With the match tied 1-1, the Yellowjackets could have allowed the visiting Tigers to take control of the match or put forth the effort necessary to reach their first state championship opportunity in school history.
Starkville played better than its opponent in the second 40 minutes by scoring two goals, allowing none and winning a 3-1 decision at Yellowjacket Stadium.
As the final whistle sounded and led to a series of horns from the scoreboard, players and coaches celebrated the well-deserved victory on the field.
"This was a long time coming," said SHS boys coach Brian Bennett, who makes his first state championship appearance in his 14th year of coaching. "Being in 6A, we'd play those teams close all those years and being in there with Tupelo. We finished second so many times in the division and had to go on the road for the first round. Getting the first round and being able to play for the North State at home was big."
Bennett knew there was enough experience on the field for the Jackets to have an advantage.
With six seniors starting, it gave Bennett the confidence to know that Starkville could come out in the second half and play well even though he termed things "flat" at times in the first half.
Price Day, who scored 15 seconds into the match to get the Jackets going, was thankful to be able to accomplish such a feat with people he's been around for years.
"It's just amazing," Day said. ""We thought about all the seniors and decided it was time to go out with a bang. We did the best we could and luckily came out on top. Overall, I've got to give credit to everybody else. JR (Tomlinson), Kase (Kingery), Addison (Watson), and Austin (Wileman) all did a great job.
"We talked about starting off with a strong pace and that's what we did. I came out and they gave me way too much room so I shot it and luckily it went in."
After Day scored, the offense didn't do anything else for the rest of the half.
"We didn't have a whole lot of energy but Hernando caused a lot of that," Bennett said. "They were flying around to the ball and going after everything. What we said at halftime, we've just got to match them."
Starkville did better than that by out-scoring Hernando 2-0 in the second half.
Kingery made a goal from 37 yards away at the 30:24 mark of the second half to give the Jackets the lead for good.
"I was trying to put it in a position so if the keeper bobbled it, someone would be there to kick it in," Kingery said. "He wasn't too good with his hands the whole game and fortunately, it went it. That goal really lifted the team."
Day provided some insurance at the 18:40 mark with his second goal of the match.
Tomlinson said Day's first score to start the match "fired up" the team and was a big advantage, but saw the same thing as Bennett with the lack of intensity for most of the first half.
"After they scored, we lost our momentum and weren't going for many 50-50 balls," Tomlinson said. "That's when we stressed that we've got to get those 50-50 balls, got to get intense and win all these. Everyone did it and stepped up.
"(The second half) was an intense half and everyone did their job, especially the defense because it didn't give up a score on the second half, which really helped and took pressure off the offense. (The offense) settled down, got into the game and scored two more goals and put it away."
Starkville, which improved to 14-4 this season, plays Pascagoula Saturday in Clinton for the Class 5A State title. The match is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
The Jackets are glad the years of competing in soccer have earned them the right to play for state and they join the football team with that opportunity.
"We've been together a really long time and it's special when it comes together like this at the very end because we've had so many years where we could have gone further, but didn't for various reasons," said Kingery, who was battling a fever earlier in the week. "I think we're playing the best we've ever played and I'm proud to be a part of it."
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