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By DANNY P. SMITH
Starkville Academy coach Robert Gardner saw his team improving during the course of Saturday's match against Madison-Ridgeland Academy.
He hopes that trend continues throughout the rest of the season.
Despite losing a 3-1 decision to MRA at the Starkville Sportsplex soccer field, the Lady Volunteers left with hope that things can get better.
Gardner saw better play on the back line in the second half which enabled SA to shut down MRA in the last 35 minutes.
"(MRA) got a few counters and threatened a little bit, but after about 5 minutes in the second half, I thought we settled in extremely well," Gardner said. "After that, I felt very comfortable with us. The passing improved a ton. When we were able to play a higher line, we keep that organization from back line to middle line to forward line, our passing improved a ton. It's clear and obvious to see, but it's still frustrating to think about the first half."
The Lady Vols, who saw their overall record slip to 1-2, gave up two first half goals to the visitors when they weren't on the same page with their coach.
It was that miscommunication that bothered Gardner the most about how the first half unfolded.
"We train for high pressure and then the girls played low pressure so when you've got what coach wants to do and the players on the field doing two different things, it's a recipe for disaster," Gardner said. "That's exactly what we got. We got what we deserved in the first half.
"We had a few chances (to score), but it should be numerous chances we create. It shouldn't be looking at having to absolutely score on these three chances to win a match, or even be in the game."
After Gardner met with his team following the match, SA junior Payton Allen had a message for her teammates about the intensity it's going to take in the future to win.
Allen liked the way the Lady Vols battled in the second half, but said it's important to put two halves together.
"We come out and think about applying this stuff, but are not thinking about how intense it's going to be in the first half," Allen said. "Once we get warmed up and see how our opponent is, we tend to play better in the second half than we do in the first half. If we have two second halves, we could have won the game."
On a hot and humid morning and early afternoon in Starkville, some SA players found it difficult to deal with the conditions.
Gardner got junior and Mississippi State commitment Tiffany Huddleston off the field about 8 minutes into the second half and replaced her with sister Hannah Huddleston, a freshman.
Hannah Huddleston responded and scored a goal right in front of the net just before time expired to end the match.
Gardner understood that the weather was tough, but was happy to see some young players step up to give the veterans a breather.
"We had players dropping like flies because of the heat, but we're not going to hold on to excuses," Gardner said. "We should have done better with it.
"We played more players than I thought we were going to play. We had a couple of 7th graders and an 8th grader step in and do well."
Starkville Academy was without sophomore Sallie Kate Richardson for the match, who injured an ankle in the first 10 minutes against Heritage on Thursday.
It's Gardner's hope that Richardson will be ready to play before Thursday's home conference match against Presbyterian Christian.