STARKVILLE — The Starkville Academy girls soccer team’s district championship vanished Monday afternoon.
However, the Lady Volunteers made sure they didn’t go down without a fight.
Starkville Academy was eliminated from the district title chase with a hard-fought, emotionally charged 6-4 loss to Presbyterian Christian at the Starkville Sportsplex.
The top four teams from the Mississippi Association of Independent School’s Class AAA, District 2 will advance to the state playoffs. With three more district matches before the regular season ends Saturday, Starkville Academy remains very much in that picture.
Jackson Prep leads the district at 15-1-1 and 6-0 in the league. Presbyterian Christian is second at 9-2 and 6-1, while Starkville Academy is 5-4 and 2-3.
The victory Monday allowed the Bobcats to complete a season sweep. The latest win came six weeks after a 5-0 showing in the season opener for both teams in Hattiesburg.
“PCS came into this game expecting a walk in the park because they beat us so bad the first time,” Starkville Academy junior forward Tiffany Huddleston said. “They didn’t think we would come out as hard as we did. It took us a few minutes to get into the swing of things. After that, we competed real well.”
A year ago, the Bobcats won the state championship but not until they needed to go into double overtime in the first round of the playoffs to beat the Lady Volunteers.
“We knew this would be very tough,” Presbyterian Christian coach Frank Smith said. “Anytime you go on the road and play in our league it is going to be a challenge. When you come here, that is definitely the case. Every match we play with them is highly intense.
“Starkville always works hard and is well coached. You have to be on when you play them. These matches feature some great soccer.”
Tempers flared throughout the match, which included physical play and very few fouls. During one stoppage of play, a referee told the PCS spectators they would either quiet down or be removed from the stadium.
“When we play them, there are always several heated moments,” Huddleston said. “It is quite intense out there. I really hope to see them again.”
The teams played an atypical high-scoring first half.
The Bobcats scored less than a minute into the match, as sophomore Kelsey Hannaford had the first of her four goals on a two-on-one.
Starkville Academy answered about six minutes later with the first of three goals from Huddleston.
The same duo scored back-to-back about three minutes apart. Hannaford scored again at the 18-minute mark, while Huddleston answered at the 21-minute mark.
Starkville Academy then held the better of the play for about 15 minutes. Jessica Dennis and Payton Allen suffered from hard luck as shots bounced off the top and the side of the goal.
After a flurry of misses, PCS seized control with back-to-back scores. Hannaford scored at the 32-minute mark and followed that up six minutes later with a critical score from about 25 yards.
Starkville Academy rallied on Huddleston’s final goal in the final half-minute of the half. Despite that score, the hosts trailed 4-3 at halftime.
“The first 20 minutes or so were difficult,” Starkville Academy coach Robert Gardner said. “Once we got our lungs back in us, I thought we really competed. That was a great effort there in the first half.”
The second half was much more defensive. The Bobcats appeared to put the match away when sophomore Danielle Henley scored midway through the half.
After a couple of near misses, the Lady Volunteers finally connected on a goal from freshman Jordan Jackson with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. The Bobcats closed the scoring when Henley registered her second goal on a breakaway in the final half-minute.
“Our defense was really bad in the first half,” Hannaford said. “We worked hard and brought ourselves together in the second half. We were not nearly as sloppy and our passing was much better. The defensive effort there in the end won the match.”
Presbyterian Christian had a 16-12 advantage in shots on goal.
“We didn’t play a ton of players, so 80 minutes of high pressure is going to wear you out physically,” Gardner said. “We really got tired there in the midfield and it led to fewer chances.”
PCS and Jackson Prep will play Thursday in Hattiesburg for the district title. Jackson Prep won the first meeting, 1-0 in Jackson.
Starkville Academy will close the regular season with three district matches — today at home against East Rankin Academy, Thursday at Copiah Academy, and Saturday at Jackson Prep. Victories in two of those three will place the Lady Volunteers back in the postseason.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.