By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The Meridian Star
In a moment, it was gone.
The Clarkdale girls soccer team had battled and fought and clawed its way back from a three-goal deficit in a span of 13 minutes Thursday at Chris Mabry Field. And then, just two minutes later, the momentum and the tied score and the season were gone.
After the Bulldogs erased the 3-0 hole in the second half of the Class 1A/2A/3A North State championship game, South Pontotoc’s Tristan Kitchens broke away from the Clarkdale defense and put the Cougars back on top 4-3 and into their first state championship appearance.
“There are so many emotions going on right,” Clarkdale’s Haley Hutcherson said. “I’m sure they are ecstatic over there. But it’s heartbreaking.”
After South Pontotoc went up 3-0 midway through the second stanza when Mattie Mills scored, it didn’t look like there was going to be much drama. However, the hole seemed to energize the Bulldogs, who had already started controlling play during the early part of the second half. However, after barely missing goals during the early parts of that half — one long shot from Hutcherson bounced over the Cougar keeper’s head but bounced off the far post and out instead of in — Clarkdale finally started connecting.
It began less than three minutes after Mills’ goal when a trio of Bulldogs attacked the South Pontotoc box and after the ball squeezed past the charging keeper, Skylar Spears pushed it into the back of the net to give Clarkdale a spark.
And that was all the Bulldogs needed to claw back into it. Next came a penalty against the Cougars and Clarkdale senior Kayla Phillips took advantage, drilling her penalty shot into the net and bringing the Bulldogs within 1.
Then it was Hutcherson’s turn. In the 33rd minute of the half, the senior stood on her own sideline facing a free kick with just one thought on her mind — tying the game. She did just that as she bent the ball just inside the near post and over the keeper’s head to bring Clarkdale all the way back.
“To score, that’s all I was thinking about was to make it,” she said, adding that after falling behind by the three goals the Bulldogs grew resilient. “We kept telling each other to finish. That we’re right here and we just need to go ahead and finish it.”
However, this time the Cougars had the answer. Two minutes after the tying goal, Kitchens got loose on the back end and beat a charging Molly McLeod for the game-winning goal.
“They got a good breakaway and had good speed up front,” Clarkdale assistant coach Steve Dennis said. “They beat our last defender and Molly came out and did the best she could but just missed it. Their striker was just able to capitalize on it.”
The Bulldogs, who advanced to the state championship game for the first time last season, had a few more chances in the tension-filled stoppage time as (16) missed wide right and Haley Dupre’ lofted a shot that just cleared the crossbar.
“It was a great comeback,” Dennis added. “Thing the first half just would not fall for us, and before we knew it we were down three. And I’ll give credit to their girls, South Pontotoc came out here and basically outhustled us the first half. So we challenged the girls to come out and do the same, and outhustle them. And we did and it showed on the scoreboard. It’s extremely hard to come back from three goals down, but we did.
“A couple of those shots would have went in, I think that would have made the difference.”
In earning their first trip to the state championship — where they will face defending champion Our Lady Academy on Saturday — the Cougars got started fast as Kitchens scored less than five minutes into the game and then 20 minutes later added a second foal from Judith Mills.