STARKVILLE — When Starkville boys soccer head coach Evinn Watson took over the program four years ago, he had no players signed to play college soccer.
The Yellow Jackets were a program going through a transitional period, trying to find their footing.
In the three years following, Watson has gotten 11 players to play at the next level, and success has been seen on the girls side too, with head coach Rafa Costa having six players in the last two years go on to play in college.
“We have such a diverse area with the university being here, different backgrounds come in with their families,” Watson said. “The MSU women’s soccer team has been very successful recently and we’ve been pushing players to go watch them. Also a lot more of the high school players are playing travel ball soccer, so they are playing soccer 8-10 months out of the year.”
Starkville’s soccer scene is growing rapidly, with the success of both high school programs and Mississippi State women’s soccer, coming off its first NCAA tournament win in program history.
The Yellow Jackets are very much at the forefront, with both the boys and girls teams reaching the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A playoffs, the girls reaching the second round and the boys reaching the semifinals.
“A large positive for soccer here is that everybody that is in a coaching position is on the same page, and we are all in it together,” Costa said.
This past season, nine of Starkville’s 14 seniors across the board signed to go play college soccer, with the two most recent additions being Lyna Driouche and Skylar Flores from the girls team.
Both are headed to East Mississippi Community College as the Lions build their soccer program from the ground up.
It was a joint decision from the two to head to Scooba as the high school teammates and friends will have another two years of playing together on the field.
“I heard about the EMCC soccer tryouts last-minute and gave it a try when I found out Lyna was also trying out,” Flores said. “I met Coach Sherry and talked with him about joining the soccer team at EMCC. He was clear with his intentions for the team and told me that he wanted me to be a part of it … If you told me last year that I would be playing in college, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m so excited to be able to play at the next level.”
Coaches have been a big part of the culture shift in Starkville becoming a soccer hub in Mississippi, with Watson and Costa being at the forefront currently.
“Coach Costa had a very big positive impact on the player I have become,” Driouche said. “We both joined the Jackets family at the exact same time. He was and still is one of my inspirations and I am so glad I had the chance to have such an amazing coach like him. I was raised in a small town in Morocco but when I moved to Starkville and met the Jackets soccer team we quickly bonded and became very close.”
The culture shift has bled into players choosing soccer over other sports or staying soccer-specific instead of being multi-sport athletes.
Watson saw a number of players at the beginning of his Starkville tenure choose another sport over soccer, but recent years has signaled a shift the other way, a great sign for things to come as more get to experience their own signing days on campus.
“Ten years ago, I remember my signing day and it’s a day I will never forget,” Watson said. “So I try my best to make sure these players get that same feeling. College soccer was some of the best years of my life and I can’t wait to see these guys playing against each other in the next couple of years.”
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