Flashes ready for next step

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2002

[02/05/02]The St. Aloysius Flashes have been here before, but things seem a little different this time.

One year ago, they played for the South State championship on a muddy field in Jackson. After a few slips here, and a few missed opportunities there, they rode home defeated, but happy to have made it that far.

Now a year older, wiser and better, the Flashes aren’t settling for making it to the North State championship game or being the last Class 1A team left in the state playoffs. Not when they still have to prove they’re the best Catholic school team and the best team in their own division on another muddy Mississippi field.

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St. Al (16-2) hosts division rival Madison-St. Joe (14-6) tonight at 6 with the North State title and a trip to Saturday’s Class 1A-2A-3A championship game on the line. West Lauderdale and Clarkdale play in the other semifinal.

St. Al won two out of three meetings with St. Joe this season, but tonight’s is the only one that really matters.

“Since we’ve already played them three times, we know which ones to mark and they know which of us to mark,” St. Al coach Shirley Agostinelli said. “It’s going to be a very close ballgame. Hopefully we’re on the winning side of it.”

A change in the playoff format allowed St. Al, the Division 4 winner, to host tonight’s game against St. Joe, the division’s runner-up. The homefield advantage might be negated by Mother Nature, however.

Forecasts were calling for sleet, rain and highs only in the mid-40s today, and conditions won’t improve by tonight.

Agostinelli said the contest wouldn’t be postponed unless the sleet made St. Joe’s trip to Vicksburg hazardous. This morning’s forecasts predicted the worst of the weather would stay north of Vicksburg, making that scenario unlikely.

“I’m really worried about it. You don’t want a slick field, and if it rains you’re going to have mud,” Agostinelli said. “Games like this, a championship, you wait until the 11th hour. That would not be a decision that would be made early in the day.”

Wissel, whose team prefers to play a grind-it-out style of soccer, said the rain and mud would give his team an edge.

“If the weather is real bad, I think it would tend to help us because we play more of a control game and they play with more speed,” St. Joe coach David Wissel said. “It’s just who can adjust better.”

Even if the weather were warm and perfect, instead of cold and rainy, Wissel discounted St. Al’s homefield advantage. Although conceding St. Al’s smaller field benefits the Flashes’ style of play, Wissel noted that St. Joe has enjoyed success at Balzli Field over the years.

“We’ve only lost one time on St. Al’s field, so we feel pretty good about it,” Wissel said.

St. Joe has had success against the Flashes this season, too.

St. Al won their first meeting, 2-0, in the Pearl Tournament in November, but the Bruins handed St. Al one of its two losses, a 3-2 setback on Dec. 6 at Balzli Field.

“We played like garbage that game, and 3-2 is pretty good considering the way we played,” said St. Al striker Michael Head, who leads the team with 30 goals.

The Flashes haven’t lost since then. They’ve won 11 straight, a streak that includes a 4-1 win over the Bruins in a rematch on Jan. 10.

St. Al has only given up 14 goals this season and have been dominant lately, posting four straight shutouts. St. Joe has also come on strong of late, winning its first two playoff games by a combined score of 15-1. The Bruins’ only goal allowed in the postseason came during garbage time of an 8-1, second-round victory over Corinth.

“We seem to have been playing a lot better at the end. I think we’re on that upswing. We’re playing a very good passing game,” Wissel said, adding that his team has been tested by a tough schedule this season. “Four of our six losses are to top-10 teams, and that tells me more what kind of team you’ve got.”

St. Joe’s success, combined with the rivalry between the two Catholic schools and the knowledge that the Bruins solved them once, has the Flashes confident but cautious.

“They’re obviously playing pretty good,” St. Al goalkeeper Andy Gough said. “It’s kind of good (playing St. Joe) because we know we can beat them, but you get kind of nervous because you know how good they are.”

Both Agostinelli and Wissel said they’ve been expecting one last St. Al-St. Joe go-round all season.

“We knew when the season started that us or St. Al would be first in the division and the other would be second. Then when the playoffs came up, we figured we’d meet again,” Wissel said. “There’s a good possibility that whoever comes out of North State will end up winning state. Whoever it is, hopefully they can go over there and represent the division well.”