February 12, 2020 12:18:55 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Starkville Academy boys soccer team isn't going to the playoffs this season.
But in Tuesday's home match against rival Heritage Academy at Starkville High School, the Volunteers played like they were. Goalkeeper Charlie Cox shut out the Patriots, sophomore Isaac Lepard scored in the first half, and Starkville Academy (5-4) beat its rival 1-0.
"That was our playoff game," Starkville Academy coach John Morgan said.
The Vols' elimination came down to goal differential, Morgan said; Heritage Academy coach Joe Asadi pointed out that Starkville Academy needed to outscore the Patriots by three goals on Tuesday to overcome them. That was a tall task for the Vols against the No. 1 seed in their district, which beat Starkville Academy 2-0 in Columbus earlier in the year.
But Tuesday's shutout win for the Vols, although it didn't get them into the playoffs, was a testament to their perseverance.
"We don't give up," Lepard said. "It was a great way to end off the season."
Lepard hobbled off the field with help from the Volunteers coaches after banging knees with an opponent in stoppage time as the Patriots sought the tying goal. In clear pain, he said postgame he was feeling "great": "It was a good game."
Given space in the box, he beat Heritage Academy keeper Parker Maner with a well-placed shot in the 12th minute. The goal came on one of Starkville Academy's few offensive chances of the match, and converting was critical.
"That's always important, especially because we have struggled offensively throughout the year," Morgan said. "But defensively, we knew we were strong, and we knew that their best defense was their offense. If you could stem the wave, we were gonna have chances."
While Heritage Academy seemed to keep the ball on the attacking half of the field for most of the match, the defense Morgan mentioned tightened up. Using extra defenders and relying on Cox's bulky frame -- the keeper is a two-way lineman on the Vols' football team, Starkville Academy managed to keep the Patriots off the board.
That proved frustrating for Asadi and the Pats, who had no trouble scoring in 12-0 and 9-0 wins over Magnolia Heights last week.
"I'm not happy with the performance," Asadi said. "We spent 70 minutes in their 18-yard (box); we didn't finish it. You've got chances, but if you don't use the chances, you're not gonna score."
The Patriots came closest in the final 10 minutes of the first half, where Cox saved three shots, and late in the second, where the keeper had to turn a few more shots away.
"He's basically what he's been all year," Morgan said of Cox. "That was probably one of our stronger points going into the game that we were pretty confident about."
And even though Starkville Academy's season ended Tuesday night, Lepard and the Vols are happy to go out with a win like the one they got.
"It was a team effort," Lepard said. "It was awesome."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.