January 30, 2013 1:05:04 AM
OXFORD -- The reaction didn't bode well for the Starkville High School boys soccer team.
After all, coach Brian Bennett knew his team was going to see a physical, hard-charging brand of soccer from Oxford High, so he talked Monday about how it needed to keep its focus and do everything it could to play its game.
Less than five minutes into the match, Juan Salazar's animated reaction to an Oxford player pulling his shirt in an attempt to dispossess him signaled staying poised was going to be a challenge.
Unfortunately, Salazar's reaction was just the beginning of what turned out to be an unusually long evening.
Hunter Stewart scored two goals, and Baxter Elliott added another on a penalty kick all in the first half Tuesday night to lift Oxford to a 3-1 victory against Starkville in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title match.
"We wanted to stay healthy because last year we had three hurt going into the playoffs and they put us out and went on to win a state championship," Oxford coach Jamie Perkins said. "We just wanted it more. Starkville beat us at everything. They put us out in football. They beat us in cross country. All of that stuff.
"Starkville is a great program, but eventually you get tired of losing to them."
With the victory, Oxford (16-3-3) advances to take on Pearl, which beat Pascagoula 2-1 on Tuesday night, in the state title game Saturday at Clinton High School.
Starkville, the defending Class 5A champion, ends its season 15-2-1.
A year ago, Oxford defeated Starkville at the end of the regular season. Starkville exacted revenge, beating Oxford 4-2 in the North State playoffs. It then beat Hernando and Pascagoula to capture its first state championships.
The games last season gave Starkville an idea of what it would be like to play Oxford. With a senior-laden lineup, the Chargers won the toss and had the wind at their backs for the first 40 minutes on a warm, blustery night. They used the elements to their advantage by playing a direct style that dared the Yellow Jackets to get in their way and stop them.
"We were wide open. Put the hammer down and go," said Perkins, who coached the New Hope High boys before moving to Oxford High. "It was a great job. We wanted to win first. It was awesome."
Scoring first gave the Chargers the boost they needed. Oxford's Eddie Terry edged past Charlie Henderson on the left side of the box, went down, and was awarded a penalty kick. Elliott took the kick and was denied by goalkeeper Michael Godley, who went low to his left to make the save. But the officials ruled Godley moved forward before the ball was kicked and ordered the kick to be re-taken.
Starkville coach Brian Bennett, whose bench was to the left of the goal, said it looked like Godley took a shuffle step to the side. Goalkeepers are allowed to move laterally but can't move forward before the ball is struck.
"You save that and that turns the momentum of the game," Bennett said. "I really couldn't believe they made that call. He must have come off the line. That was a huge turning point."
Elliott didn't waste his second opportunity, knocking it to the middle-right as Godley guessed to his right and couldn't react to stop the shot.
Things didn't get much better from there.
A little more than three minutes later, Stewart scored the first of his goals following a steal on the right side of the attacking third. As soon as Stewart stole the ball, he unleashed a rocket to the high middle of the goal that Godley didn't have enough time to stop.
"They won the toss and went with the wind, and that was our plan if we won the toss," Bennett said. "It's the same thing we were going to do, try to get on them in a hurry. We just made a couple of bad touches.
"Giving up that goal quick can sometimes get into your mind, and I think it did a little bit."
Two goals was enough of an aberration considering Starkville had allowed only six goals entering the match. Oxford made sure it eclipsed Brandon's high-water mark of two with a little more than 10 minutes left in the first half. One minute earlier, Starkville's Salazar, Christian Kingery and Justin Gordon teamed on a nice combination play that gave the impression the Yellow Jackets were settling in. But another giveaway, this time off a double team on the right side, allowed Stewart to collect the ball and beat Godley with another quick-hitting laser.
"It was almost exactly like it was last year. We just got a lot younger and have a lot smaller team," Starkville senior Taylor Wise said. "Obviously, there were a lot of bad calls, but we just got outmuscled tonight."
Starkville had its best scoring chances at the end of the half. Salazar made a nice run on the far side of the field and sent a cross into the center of the box, but goalkeeper Henry Wade snared the ball with Gordon lurking in the area. Less than a minute later, Wade dove to his left to stop Arman Borazjani's one-touch in the box off a long ball from Henderson. Borazjani re-directed the ball from the left to the far post, but he had to go into the air to make contact and didn't get as solid a strike as he could have, which gave Wade the time he needed to get a hand on the ball.
The scoring chances gave the Yellow Jackets hope they could rally in the second half, but the Chargers continued to come right at them. The physical style resulted in three yellow cards for the game (two by Starkville) and marked frustration by the Starkville players.
"It is tough to keep the ball on the ground and play real soccer when every time you touch the ball you get slammed, but we have a young team and they didn't know really how to react," Wise said.
Wise, who scored on a penalty kick with less than nine minutes to go, called the loss "heartbreaking" because the Yellow Jackets didn't get a chance to play their game.
"They are a very physical team. We knew it because we saw it last year," Bennett said. "With the new guys, you can talk about it, but until you get out there and see it ... We might have should have brought our football pads. Besides that, it was a very physical game. As things go, if they are playing with a referee that is calling it tight, that's a big disadvantage to them. If they are playing with a referee like they had tonight, it is a huge advantage for them. We just couldn't match up with their physical play."
Bennett said the way the officials called the game played in to the hands of Oxford because it enjoys a physical brand of soccer. He said the Yellow Jackets didn't counter the aggression by playing faster and moving the ball in a possession game.
"I still didn't think we realized that they were bumping us and hitting us and they weren't calling it," Bennett said. "We weren't getting rid of the ball quick enough. We were real deliberate with it. We probably should have rid of the balls quicker knowing they were coming in hard all off the time."
Starkville tried to regain its composure in the second half and was able to maintain possession for longer stretches, but the disjointed nature of the match prevented it from clicking as well as it did in a 6-0 victory against Saltillo in the opening round of the North State playoffs.
Bennett said Oxford's style of play was a major reason his team wasn't able to organize a buildup to get a goal.
"They're going to go physical and hard," Bennett said. "Like I said, if you get another referee that is calling it tight, it is a huge disadvantage to them because of our skill and ability to move the ball. We probably would have taken advantage of it (if that was the case). There weren't a whole lot of calls, but a whole lot more probably should have been made. There is really nothing you can do to prepare for that.
"Just the physical play and the way the ref called it, I do think that is the major part of the game," Bennett said. "There was a lot of physical stuff, stuff after the play, and he didn't call a lot "
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.