It was as perfect of a home debut that Miller Hayden could ask for as the Oak Grove senior scored a hat-trick in the first half of the Warriors' 7-0 win over Petal on Thursday night.
For Hayden, a transfer from Sacred Heart, the game was not only his first home game at Oak Grove (7-1) but his first competitive high school match in almost two years.
"In high school, I've had a lot of hat tricks but not at Oak Grove," Hayden said. "I actually transferred from Sacred Heart, and I was ruled ineligible last year and couldn't play.
My first time back was a friendly game on Dec. 5. This is my first game at home with Oak Grove, and it feels good."
However, after being ruled ineligible to play last season, Hayden went down with an injury in August that sidelined him for four months.
"I tore a ligament in my foot that connects to my big toe, so they had to repair it and replace it back on the bone," Hayden said. "Sitting in the mornings and having to watch is awful. I love it for my teammates, but it feels awful not being able to play. I didn't touch the field. I didn't work out and couldn't do anything for four months. I started practicing at the end of November."
Luckily for Hayden, who recently committed to UAB, the patience finally paid off as he played a crucial role in helping Oak Grove take control of the game early on.
Hayden scored the first two goals of the game in the 14th and 17th minutes.
"The first goal, their center backs were just playing with the ball, and they weren't getting rid of it in their own box," Hayden said. "I figured just press because it's close to the goal, and I went and scored.
"The second one was off of a cross. It bounced off a few people and landed right around me, and it just took a touch."
Noah Roblin then scored on a breakaway in the 24th minute. Hayden then followed with his last goal as well as the final goal of the half in the 26th minute to give Oak Grove a 4-0 lead.
"The last goal was funny, the ref didn't see it, but the kid stuck his hand out and handballed it," Hayden said. "Then it dropped to me, and I hit it. I got lucky. I thought it was going out of bounds, but it went over and went in."
For Oak Grove coach Jesse Lang, the success on the field was a result of his team's ability to communicate.
"Our kids just played well together," Lang said. "They communicate. They talked and connected their passes. Nobody is the one guy that everyone is playing it too.
"We are getting there (with hitting our stride), but we don't want to be there yet. We want to peak on Feb. 4 or Feb. 5. Our goal is to get better every time we play."
Despite Oak Grove sitting most of its starters in the second half, the Warriors added three more goals with Cody Collins scoring in the 54th minute, Luke Dickson scoring in the 56th minute and then Dawson Johns finishing the night off with a goal in the 74th minute.
Lang said it was important to get his younger players playing time, especially since Oak Grove has yet to play with its entire set of starters.
"We are still missing three players tonight," Lang said. "We haven't played yet with everybody.
COVID protocols for some, injuries, vacations.
"You never know with the way this year was going with COVID and injuries and everything like that who is going to be there for the next game. If they had been sitting on the bench the entire year, it's tough to play and come in without any experience, so we wanted to try and play as many as we could to get in the game. I think we are pretty deep."
For Petal, the loss was an illustration of what has been an unkind season to the Panthers (3-4-1). Petal lost its two goalkeepers, with one going down to a season-ending wrist injury and the other unexpected moving after dealing with COVID-19 protocols. In addition, one of the Panthers' starting forwards tore his ACL in the preseason.
"We lost one to an injury, and then the other had back-to-back quarantines and then moved to New Orleans, so we have had no goalkeepers since preseason," Petal coach John Dicks said. "We ended up converting some field players into goalkeepers, so they have actually done well with that and stepped into that position well. But this means that we also pulled them out of a field position, which meant younger people stepped into those positions. We are young this year with two seniors and starting four freshmen."
According to Dicks, Oak Grove's stemmed from the ability to add more players in the box and capitalizing off the Panthers' inexperience.
"They were getting extra numbers in the box, and some of our defenders in the back are young and inexperienced," Dicks said. "There are a couple of sophomores back there. They just got extra numbers in, and it was some of our players losing track of them because of inexperience.
"In the end, it has given our younger players (experience), some kids from junior varsity got playing time today with 10 to 12 minutes that they wouldn't have gotten on a normal basis. It gives them a chance to get a feel for the Petal-Oak Grove game, which is always a tough game.