By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
It’s a good thing Pontotoc already knows how to play without standout midfielder Fredy Gutierrez.
The talented senior, who received a red card and was ejected in the first half of Tuesday’s win against Florence, will have to sit out the first half of today’s MHSAA Class 4A state championship soccer match against West Lauderdale.
“I was very proud of the way we stepped up with Fredy out (against Florence),” Pontotoc coach Michael Loden said. “They responded well and they will respond again.”
Gutierrez will be eligible to play in the second half.
Today’s match is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Clinton High School’s football stadium. In another title match featuring a Northeast Mississippi team, Oxford plays Pearl at 7:30 for 5A boys honors.
South Pontotoc’s Lady Cougars, making their first trip to the title game, kick off the day at 9:30 a.m. in the 1A-2A-3A championship against Hattiesburg’s Sacred Heart.
Tristan Kitchens scored two goals, including the game-winner in 75th minute, to lead South Pontotoc (14-4) to its 4-3 semifinals win against Clarkdale.
Loden’s Warriors (18-3-1) beat Florence 3-1 behind the strength of two second-half goals by Brayden Timmons and the defensive play of keeper Daniel Harrell. Rafael Vidana, who leads the team with 26 goals, was held scoreless.
“It’s been a total team effort,” Loden said. “We’ve had different people step up at times. They all know and accept their roles.”
Loden knew it could be a special season early when his team dropped a 2-0 decision to defending 5A state champion Starkville. He had three of his starters miss the game to run cross country.
In the season’s third game, Pontotoc went to Tupelo and beat the 6A Golden Wave 2-1.
“We set our sights high,” said Loden, who has directed Pontotoc to its first championship match. “We knew we could play with people after the Starkville game. To beat Tupelo on their field gave us a boost.”
Pontotoc lost to state finalist Corinth in the state semifinals last season.
“West Lauderdale’s a good team,” Loden said. “They beat Newton County (1-0 in the semifinals) and Newton beat Bay High, a team everybody thought would be playing for the championship, in the first round.
“The Florence coach thought we matched up evenly with West Lauderdale. He thinks we’ve got a shot. We’re looking forward to it.
“This has been our goal all along.”