By Brandon Speck/Monroe Journal
NEW ALBANY – Madison Francis bent a first-half freekick right through the top corner of the New Albany net and, just like that, relieved 15 years of Amory frustrations.
With a 2-0 win at New Albany’s Kitchens Field Wednesday night in the Class 4A North finals, the Panthers (17-6-1) are making their first trip to the state soccer championship, where they’ll face Florence at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning at Clinton High School.
“It’s hard to describe,” said Amory coach Nathan Clayton, who played at and coached seven seasons at New Albany. “It’s very exciting for these kids and there’s not a bunch that deserves it any more than this bunch.”
Clayton, in his third year at Amory, said following Saturday’s win against Pontotoc that he came to Amory to beat New Albany. It couldn’t have come on a bigger stage for a school that has been burdened by early exits at the hands of private schools and a second-round loss last season.
“This was either going to be the greatest feeling in the world or the worst feeling in the world,” Clayton said. “Fortunately for us, we were able to come out on top.”
Amory keeper Kyle Thomas made save after save and New Albany failed to finish despite spending much of the night at Amory’s net.
“The main thing in this game is you’ve got to put the ball in the back of the net and we had tons of opportunities to do that and didn’t take advantage of it,” New Albany coach Taylor Nichols said.
“We felt like we out-possessed them and had more opportunities to score than them.”
With New Albany (11-7) on its heels with an extensive five minutes of added time, Amory junior Zach Khima broke free for his state-leading 57th goal and the celebration began.
“Kyle Thomas was phenomenal for us,” Clayton said, “made some very clutch plays. Zach did a good job putting the game away and Madison had a great setpiece.”
Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Fernandez led a charge that spiked with several looks at Thomas early in the second half but Thomas stopped every attempt and Andrew Ginn cleared a handful of shots from the backline to keep the shutout intact.
“I was just zoning in,” Thomas said. “I was zoned in the whole time, reading their passes and their hits.”