STARKVILLE — The Starkville Academy girls soccer team dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to Jackson Prep on Tuesday afternoon at the Starkville Sportsplex.
With the victory, Prep improved to 9-1-1 and 3-0 in Class AAA, District 3 play, while Starkville Academy fell to 4-3 and 1-2.
Coupled with a 5-0 district loss to Presbyterian Christian last month, Starkville Academy needs a strong second-half run to have a chance at winning the district title or earning a playoff berth.
“I was happy with the performance as a whole,” Starkville Academy coach Robert Gardner said. “It was a good performance. We defended like heroes out there. This match shows a clear picture to the girls that when you play in high-pressure situations you can create chances to win.”
Jackson Prep scored 16 minutes into the match on a 20-foot shot by junior forward Keavy Noblin. From there, defense was the name of the game.
“It is always good to come on the road and win,” Jackson Prep coach Jon Marcus Duncan said. “We created lots of chances. We are struggling to finish. Credit also goes to their defense. They found a way to keep us out.”
Shortly after the goal, the Lady Volunteers suffered a major injury when they lost forward Tiffany Huddleston to a turned ankle.
“You really hate to see Tiffany get hurt there,” Duncan said. “She is the caliber of player who could definitely have made a difference in the match.”
Gardner said the injury didn”t look severe and that the talented junior most likely would be held out of this week”s other two matches but that she should be able to play the balance of the schedule after those contests.
Jackson Prep held a 16-7 advantage in shots on goal, but both backlines were up to the challenge of keeping this match a defensive shootout.
“We knew this would be a very hard game,” Starkville Academy sophomore defender Nora Kathryn Carroll said. “We came out with intensity and tried our hardest. I am very proud of our defensive effort. We were really super out there today.”
Gardner has been impressed by the improved play of his backline. The play is even more impressive considering several players have been shuffled throughout the season.
“Anna (McKell) and Nora (Kathryn Carroll) really bring a tremendous effort to every match,” Gardner said. “They play very well together in the midfield. Sydney Passions is a seventh-grader who has been playing with the junior varsity team. We moved her up and she has stepped in and performed like a pro.
“The backline was really magnificent today. That was my favorite part of the match.”
Eighth-grader McKenzie Robinson recorded the shutout in goal. The Lady Patriots have only allowed three goals this season. Duncan said Robinson has matured as a goalkeeper in her second year and has received solid support from the backline.
“Our backline was tremendous,” Duncan said. “We are proud of McKenzie. She is extremely solid in goal. However, the play of Georgia Dewey, Ann Hilton Buckner, Elizabeth Shapley, Grace Baird, and Maggie Leech has been just as important to our success.”
Despite Huddleston”s injury and Jackson Prep”s strong defense, the Lady Volunteers still had a couple of shots sail just wide of the goal in the final five minutes. Sophomore Sally Kate Richardson led a two-on-one that came up just short in the waning minutes.
“Playing for close to 60 minutes without Tiffany made our job offensively a much bigger challenge,” Gardner said. “Jacey (Williams) had a couple of chances in the second half and the ball didn”t bounce our way. That is what I told the team after the match.
“Sometimes, the ball bounces your way and sometimes it doesn”t. What you can control is the amount of effort you give. Today we just had some unfortunate breaks. We did not have a lot of chances and couldn”t finish the really good ones we did have.”
Gardner said the Lady Volunteers will regroup and attempt to finish strong. A playoff team a season ago, Starkville Academy knows strong play down the stretch could lead to a repeat appearance.
“We have to keep the motivation up,” Carroll said. “We know if we try our hardest and play our hardest we can be satisfied with the result. We will learn from this loss, and it will make us a stronger team in the end.”
Starkville Academy will play today at Madison-Ridgeland Academy. The first half of the district schedule will ends Saturday at East Rankin. The second-half keynote district matches are Presbyterian Christian at home on Sept. 26 and Jackson Prep on Oct. 1.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.