STARKVILLE –Taylor Wise is easily the most physically-imposing player whenever he steps on a soccer field.
Still, even a beast needs a little love from friends and family to provide an extra gear.
On Saturday, flanked by relatives and close friends, the Starkville High School forward signed a National Letter of Intent to play at Hinds Community College. Three hours later, he repaid his supporters with two goals in a 2-0 playoff victory against Hernando in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
The 6-foot-5 striker broke a scoreless deadlock in the 20th minute after latching on to the end of a Dylan Howard through ball on the flank. Wise, who faced a difficult angle, slotted the ball under the goalkeeper for his first goal. And after two missed headers and a rocket that was barely parried away, Wise was tripped in the box and easily netted from the spot to seal Starkville’s second-straight trip to the Class 5A North State title game.
“It’s been an all-around great day,” Wise said, “I couldn’t ask for anything better.
“Having a lot of friends and past coaches come out here to see me sign gave me a little extra motivation,” he said. “It kind of helped.”
Starkville (16-1-1) will play at Oxford at a date yet to be determined by the Mississippi High School Activities Association. Oxford defeated Center Hill 1-0 on Saturday.
Starkville, which claimed the 5A state title last season, has conceded just two goals this season. Entering the season, questions loomed about the Jackets’ new backline players and lack of size. Players like Wise, who has 15 goals this season, would have to have an All-Star season to help the Yellow Jackets’ repeat dreams come to fruition. The forward, one of just three seniors in the starting lineup, has been the talisman coach Brian Bennett needed. Saturday’s game showed Bennett his star forward had something else in store.
“I had a feeling he would get a chance to score that second goal,” Bennett said. “He kept getting past them in the back but didn’t finish. He worked hard – sometimes he doesn’t work that hard – but I’ve noticed it pick up since the last game. He uses that big frame well.”
Wise was everywhere Saturday, chasing down errant passes, challenging for 50-50 balls and running on to crisp passes from Howard, Juan Salazar and Justin Gordon.
“It was tiring,” said Wise, who after the game favored a sore ankle, “but you have to give it your all to win a title.”
While his fitness and conditioning impressed coaches and teammates, Wise’s precision helped the Jackets score both times. On the first goal, Wise had split second to decide what kind of shot to put on goal.
“First thought was to try and play it across to see if I had a teammate,” said Wise, “but I saw the goalie come out more toward the goal line instead of me, so I just went far post and it went in for me. Dylan played a great ball and I’m glad I scored.”
n Starkville 2, Center Hill 0: If young players are talented enough — and focused enough — a soccer coach can work wonders with them.
It hasn’t always been easy this season for Starkville High coach Anna Albritton, but it’s coming together at the right time.
Just a week ago, Class 5A rival New Hope humbled Starkville to close the regular season. Now, the Lady Yellow Jackets heading to the Class 5A North State title game for the first time in program history.
Senior Haley Jenkins and freshman Cailee Helen McClain scored goals either side of half time to propel the Lady Jackets into Tuesday’s title game at Ridgeland, which beat New Hope 1-0 Saturday.
With six players who are sophomores or younger in the starting lineup, the Lady Jackets looked like the more experienced side Saturday. Eighth-grade goalkeeper Camryn Dawkins was rarely tested despite starting defender Megan Moorhead missing the match due to a torn meniscus. The Lady Jackets (8-5-3) also were without sophomore defender/midfielder Meghan Wolf, who had inflammation in her knee.
The Lady Jackets enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, too, as sophomore Hannah Laird and junior Noa Hardin controlled the middle of the field and routinely distributed wide passes to McClain, Harper Laird, and Carolina Berryhill. Starkville could have gone into the break leading 3-0 against Center Hill (16-4) if not for a pair of point-black chances yanked wide by McClain.
“We talked about playing our game, and going back to the way they’ve been coached,” Albritton said. “We work on networking the ball. When we finally slowed down and got together mentally, on the same page, we were able to create. That was the biggest difference from other games.”
McClain, who when asked about her missed shots smiled and said, “Now we know, if we keep playing like this, we’ll score more and hopefully win it all. It just feels good to get this point.”
Center Hill coach Dave Burgess said his team played better in the second half but struggled to overcome Starkville’s talent level.
“Starkville has some girls who can score at will,” he said. “Noa Hardin is always trouble. We just tried to be mistake-free in the back and take advantage of the chances we had. Unfortunately, the ball didn’t bounce our way today.”