HATTIESBURG – Both of the Oak Grove soccer teams needed wins over George County Friday night. Without wins, road playoff games loomed when the postseason starts later this month.
The Lady Rebels and the Rebels both earned 1-0 wins against Oak Grove earlier this season, so Friday was a must-win for both squads if Oak Grove wanted to reclaim the region title.
The Lady Warriors got things started with a 2-1 victory over George County, but they didn’t know they won the region until Oak Grove coach Clay Smith looked at the tiebreakers after the game. Since the Lady Rebels were undefeated in region play, and Oak Grove just had the one-goal loss to them, a 2-0 win would give the Lady Warriors the outright region title. However, the one-goal win forced a tiebreaker, but Oak Grove had that advantage.
“We had the 2-0 lead, but we still had to keep attacking,” Smith said. “We had to try to get that third goal to keep the separation. We just had to play to win it and let the score play out itself. If it became a tiebreaker, so be it. It was nice that we were able to get that second goal.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Click for photos from Matt Bush.
Since both games between George County and the Lady Warriors were one-goal wins for each team, the tiebreaker came down to how each team fared against the third-place team, Petal. Oak Grove had a better goal differential against the Lady Panthers than George County did, so the Lady Warriors claimed the region title.
Friday marked the third consecutive title for the Lady Warriors, and it’s the 17th one in the program’s history, too.
“Considering the district has changed every two years, so to be able to be competitive with teams coming in and out, I’m really proud of the girls,” Smith said. “They fought hard, and it’s just a great feeling. George County is a tough team that plays you hard, so going three in a row, that’s really great.”
The teams played a scoreless first half, but Oak Grove put more pressure on the George County defense than the Lady Rebels did to Oak Grove. Junior Zylah Mulligan had two break-a-ways down the left side that didn’t result in scores, and senior Maggie Starns had three free kick tries on the Lady Rebels’ side the pitch.
Smith said he and his assistant coach, Kieran Pettigrew told his players to slow the tempo down a little bit, because George County wanted the fast-paced game.
The Lady Warriors heard the message because it took seven minutes into the second half for Oak Grove to get on the board. Junior Rebekah Baugh shot a floating ball from the right side of the 18-yard box, while falling backwards, over the keeper’s hands and into the left netting.
“That was just a great shot, and she does that sometimes,” Smith said. “That reminds me of her shot against Brandon her freshman year. She hit one just like that. She made a move to the outside and hit the upper 90, so that was just a great shot.”
Freshman Kayla Herring added the second goal 10 minutes later. Mulligan crossed a ball into the box, and Herring needed just one touch to find the back of the net to give Oak Grove a commanding 2-0 lead.
George County tied the game with five minutes to go, but it wasn’t enough.
In the nightcap, all Oak Grove had to do was win, and it made it look easy with a 3-0 shutout over the Rebels. The Warriors’ lone loss in the region came to the Rebels, but George County dropped a game to Petal earlier this season, so both teams came into the match with one loss, which meant it was a winner-take-all scenario.
Oak Grove coach Jesse Lang thought the location of Friday’s game played a huge part in his team’s dominant win, because Oak Grove’s field is wider and it’s turf.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click for photos from Matt Bush.
“It’s a wider field and we’re used to playing on the turf and not on grass,” Lang said. “A lot of our passes weren’t quite connecting (at George County earlier this season), and they got up on us early.”
All three goals were highlight-reel type scores, too, and senior Clay Derrick got the scoring started in the 23rd minute with a shot from inside the 18-yard box. Senior Michael Pitts had a throw-in land inside the box, then Derrick collected the ball at his feet, turned and fired for the goal.
The second goal didn’t come until 18 minutes into the second half, and it was easily the flashiest goal of the three. Junior Elean Fajardo put the George County defender on skates on the right side of the box, then he fired for the left upper-90 to give the Warriors a 2-0 lead.
Lang was more impressed with the third goal, however, because his players never gave up the scoring opportunity. With the keeper out of position, Fajardo’s shot hit off the post, but junior Logan Stone was there to finish it off.
“They just kept battling over it, and we’ve been working on that this week,” Lang said. “We weren’t following up. Somebody would take a shot and we were just watching. We worked on that all week and we got a couple of those tonight.”
It’s the second straight region title for the Warriors, and even though they felt the pressure of winning Friday night, Oak Grove didn’t have to sweat it out towards the end of the game.
The playoffs will begin Monday, Jan. 28 for the Lady Warriors and the Tuesday, Jan. 29 for the boys.