AMORY – Amory senior Trey Clark was just in the seventh grade in 2011, the last time the Panthers' boys soccer team reached the North state finals.
This time, Clark gets to experience North half from the other side as a senior co-captain after Amory beat Pontotoc 2-0 on Saturday to set up Wednesday's matchup with Florence with a trip to Saturday's state championship game on the line.
“We definitely want more after that, but we're playing here for North half, which is something Amory has never done,” Clark said. “That gives us a lot of motivation for Wednesday. Pontotoc is a big rivalry for us, and it made it even more intense that we didn't see them this year in the division. Meeting them in the second round was huge, and it gave us a great intensity before the game. It made us really pumped up.”
Amory (16-1-2) got off to a hot start with Aaron Goldman scoring his fourth goal in the last three games in just the second minute. Brendan Koehn picked up the assist.
It was Clark who extended the lead in the 13th minute, burying a penalty kick after Pontotoc was called for a handball in the box.
The Panthers had several more chances to score throughout the game but were shutout in the final 60 minutes.
“It was a long time for us to go without scoring, and we definitely wanted that third goal,” Clark said. “We didn't get it, but our defense was able to hold them.”
Amory soccer coach Nathan Clayton credited a tough Pontotoc team with making it a battle in the second round.
“We had so many opportunities to put them away, and we just couldn't do it. They have a really good ball team,” Clayton said. “They have several guys that are really skilled on the ball on the offensive end. They had some speed back there, a lot of guys that could run with us. We took a lot of shots and just couldn't put them on frame. We did a good job keeping pressure back there most of the time, but just couldn't finish on frame.”
It's the 12th shutout of the season for keeper Alex Box and the backline of Ryan Morgan, Aaron Pressley, Trent Pace and Drew Winter. Box made several key saves, many in the first half, to keep the Warriors off the board.
“Our defense played great. Pontotoc is very skilled up top,” Clayton said. “No. 10 (Joshua Vidana) has scored a lot of goals this year, and Trey and Goldman did a good job keeping balls off his feet. When he did get one, we did a good job over the top with our center defenders Aaron (Pressley) and Trent, and Ryan and Drew did a great job on the wings because we got them out of their comfort zone and made them play wide.
“Box made some great saves, and that's been the story of how we've done all year. We're not going to blow someone out. We're going to play well offensively, score a few goals, and our defense is going to be really solid. If they do make a mistake, someone is going to cover up for it.”
It's the third time the Panthers have reached the North finals after making it in 2007 and 2011.
“Those seniors are in a small knit of people because there's only been about two classes that have gotten to play in two North half championships,” Clayton said. “This is a tremendous chance. It's been solid teams from the beginning, and to make it through with two wins already, you're right there at the edge of playing for a state championship. This is a tremendous accomplishment for us because we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of high school ball, but yet we're still out there playing with a lot of juniors and sophomores.
“These guys have responded well to it. Most of the teams we play are usually a little faster, a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier, but these guys compete with anybody. I wouldn't trade this bunch for what anyone else has got.”
Tuesday – First round: Amory 3, Richland 1
Aaron Goldman picked up where he had left off the previous week when he scored two goals against Itawamba AHS. The sophomore midfielder sent a rocket into the back of the net off an assist from Brendan Koehn for the Panthers' first goal of the night.
“He's played really well. He and Trey Clark have both played really well in our defensive midfield the last few weeks,” Clayton said of Goldman. “It's not an attractive position because you're not getting a lot of chances to score or assists, but they do a lot of stuff that you don't see on paper unless you're a soccer person. They've played outstanding all year long, but especially the last few weeks.”
Coming out of the locker room with the 1-0 lead, Cameron Koehn gave the Panthers some breathing room when he scored in the 46th minute off an assist from Jake Kirkpatrick.
“Cameron is very big for us, and it's the same thing with his position,” Clayton said. “A lot of times he's distributing the ball and setting things up for other people, but he got the big goal tonight and almost got another one on a deflection there in the second half.”
Richland scored in the 64th minute, making it only the second goal in 4A play and the first since before Christmas surrendered by the Panthers' defense of Ryan Morgan, Aaron Pressley, Trent Pace, Drew Winter and keeper Alex Box.
“We played pretty well defensively. We had a breakdown on that goal, and a couple of other times they got some shooting opportunities,” Clayton said. “We had somebody step in and make a play whether it's another defender or (Alex) Box making a save. The field conditions weren't ideal for us, but we got through.”
The win was completely secured when Trey Clark nailed a penalty kick in the final minute after Brendan Koehn was taken down in the box.
“We had a few guys go down at the end, and so we had some different guys in there,” Clayton said. “I was proud of our guys, not just to hold on to the lead, but to get another goal and put a little more frosting on top of the cake.”