January 30, 2013 1:25:20 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
RIDGELAND -- Starkville's first-ever trip to the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A North State girls soccer championship match ended in extreme disappointment with a 2-0 defeat at Ridgeland Tuesday night.
The Lady Jackets were unable to handle the offensive attack of midfielder Mary Ashton Lembo as the senior ended the night with a goal and an assist to led the Lady Titans to the state championship game Saturday in Clinton.
"We're a very talented team and getting this far is going to prepare us for 6A next year," Starkville coach Anna Albritton said. "Watching them play tonight the way they fought and knowing how these teams here in this Jackson area play physical we learned to bump back and fight back more than we've ever done before."
In the 21st minute of the match, Lembo used her best weapon according to her coach Jonathan Branch, her creativity to find sophomore forward Tracie Hobbs on a 10-yard pass for a perfectly executed goal with the Lady Titans being against a 20 mile-per-hour wind in the first half.
"We were so fortunate to have that goal early and it allowed us to relax and control the tempo for the rest of the match," Branch said. "(Lembo) is one of the best players in the state and of course, I'm biased but I say that because I don't know what I would do if I had to coach against her."
With the help of the wind, Starkville (8-6-3) had opportunities to tie the score late in the first half including a free kick that actually beat Lady Titans keeper Jessica Milner hit the crossbar and bounced back in front of Ridgeland's defense.
"We had numerous shots, numerous opportunities right after the first goal and second part of the first half," Albritton said. "In the second half I think we got a little tired because I kept my big dogs in there, I didn't sub out a lot."
Lembo then put the Lady Titans (14-3-6) up by a decisive 2-0 margin on a shot from outside the keeper box. The ball skipped off the field turf at Ridgeland High School and deflected off a Starkville defender to go past eighth-grade keeper Camryn Dawkins for the game's final goal.
"We have so much depth on this team that when we say it's a team effort, we all buy in to that concept and believe in that idea," Lembo said. "I'm surrounded by so many good players that are determined to win that it makes it so much easier to go out and compete."
Lembo is one of several players in the Ridgeland starting lineup that is injured as she was forced to get her left ankle looked at and placed in a protective boot after the game due to a severe sprain that she's played through since the middle of the season.
A two-point effort in the final home game of her high school career is a memory the midfielder said she'll "treasure for a long time" as the Lady Titans travel to Clinton to play South Jones High School in Clinton Saturday.
"Just the opportunity to play with these girls one more time will be special because this ride with them has been every bit of special you could hope for," Lembo said.
After getting the 2-0 advantage, Ridgeland used the wind advantage of their home field to control possession and tempo to the point that Starkville struggled to get the ball past midfield for the final 20 minutes of play.
"We knew they had a lot of team speed in the back forward positions so our focus was not trying to get caught out of position and get beat for a cheap goal," Branch said.
"Our defense did a really good job of not getting frustrated with this wind and keeping focus on their jobs in front of them."
Starkville's season ends one game before what would've been the program's first trip to a state championship game but the Lady Jackets have only five members of the 29-player roster graduating after this season.
"This has been in the making for a couple of years here and we are going to lose some pieces to the puzzle next year, but we've got some pieces to put back in there," Albritton said.