A steady caravan of soccer supporters will trek north this weekend with five South Mississippi soccer teams remaining in the MHSAA soccer playoffs.
Once again the state championships are split between Clinton High School and Madison Central High School.
St. Patrick will face Southeast Lauderdale in the Class 1A/2A/3A title game at 2 p.m. and Ocean Springs will have a rematch of last year's Class 6A title game against Madison Central at 6 p.m., both at CHS.
At MCHS: St. Stanislaus will look for its third straight Class 5A championship at 2 p.m. against Amory; West Harrison's girls and Oxford face off in the Class 5A match at 4 p.m.; Stone will conclude the day with a 5A match against Germantown at 6 p.m.
The Fighting Irish (14-5-1) return to the title stage after a one-year hiatus. As is often the case with prep soccer, game film of defending Class 1A/2A/3A champ Southeast Lauderdale (14-4-2) has been hard to come by so coach Mario Camps said his team has focused on itself in preparation of Saturday.
"Our main philosophy on the field is we need to keep the ball in our position. The longer we do that the more opportunities we have to score," he said. "We believe in short passes, maintaining the ball on the ground and not to rush the ball immediately."
St. Patrick beat Wesson 9-1, St. Andrew's 4-2 and defending South State champion Sacred Heart 2-0 to reach Saturday's match. Camps said a key to the team's success has been a whole-team attitude.
"I really think all of the players have stepped up and any given time," he said. "When we played against Sacred Heart, our main two strikers didn't score, it was one of our midfielders. That's a good thing because when you're going up against a strong opponent, when you have one player they get marked and are removed from the game.
"But when you have many players it makes it very hard for the opposing coach to know what to do."
The Tigers defeated Mooreville 3-1, North Pontotoc 2-1 in overtime and Forest 3-1 to advance. According to Maxpreps.com, the Tigers are led by two goal scorers, Andrew Bernard and Andres Alonso, who have combined for 35 goals.
The reigning two-time Class 4A champion Rockachaws (18-6-1) feel pretty confident heading into Saturday against Amory (17-1-2) -- and rightfully so. Of SSC's 20 travel players, 17 were at least on the travel squad on last year's team. The Rockachaws also boast 10 seniors, giving them plenty of experience when they face newcomer Amory.
"This year I feel like my guys are confident," SSC coach Ryan Joiner said. "We respect our opponent but we don't fear them."
Joiner said he expects the Panthers to play a similar system to theirs.
"We're going to exploit some things we've seen on film but we're going to do what we do best, which is attacking from the back," he said. "We like to use our outside backs to get forward and we're a high-press team, so we force them to play longer and more direct.
"Our guys love to run and push the tempo to try to put a lot of pressure on them."
Amory defeated Richland 3-1, Pontotoc 2-0 and Florence 2-1 in overtime to advance. SSC defeated Sumrall 10-0, Northeast Jones 3-1 and Bay 2-1.
The Lady 'Canes (17-3-2) will make their championship debut Saturday against a dangerous Oxford team (19-5). The Lady Chargers have a three pronged attack, led by eighth-grader Morgan O'Connor's 26 goals, that has combined for 55 goals.
"She's athletic and very physical so we'll have to pay attention to her," WHHS coach Todd Moniz said. "They play in a 4-3-3 system. They have two quality strikers and some workers in the middle. They're an all-around solid team."
Moniz said his team has focused on what it needs to do to bring WHHS home its first girls soccer championship.
"If we play to our capabilities, the other team should be the one that has to adjust," Moniz said. "We're just trying to fine tune what we do."
In order to get to the title match, WHHS rolled Provine 8-0 and South Jones 3-1 before duking it out with defending two-time champion West Jones 2-0.
"What we saw from West Jones was a true champion mentality. They fought the entire game," Moniz said. "We know going into a final that kind of performance will be necessary. There may be times where we'll have to ride out the storm.
"I think a lot of the games have prepared us for this final. We've seen different types and quality of teams and so far so good."
Oxford knocked off Vicksburg 9-0, Germantown 2-1 and Saltillo 6-0 to get to Saturday.
Heading into Saturday's match against Germantown (12-3-4), Scott Maddox feels pretty good about his Stone High Tomcats, and rightfully so. Boasting a 20-1-1 overall record and having grinded out three straight 1-0 wins over West Jones, Pascagoula and Gautier, Maddox believes his team has been battle tested in recent weeks.
"We're peaking at the right time. The momentum we're coming into this game with is outstanding," he said. "I can say without a doubt the teams we had to play have prepared us for the finals. West Jones was no pushover, Pascagoula certainly wasn't and neither was Gautier.
"I think that will be the difference in Saturday's game."
In order to come away with a win, the Tomcats will have to do a better job at winning 50-50 balls and being more aggressive.
"As long as we play our game, step on them and not give them much space, we should give them a run for their money," Maddox said. "We just have to pass well and possess well. One thing we haven't done is step to the ball. Our team tends to let the other team win the ball and then take it away. I don't like that. We have to win the 50-50 balls."
Germantown eliminated Center Hill 3-1, Oxford 1-0 and Lewisburg 5-4.
There will likely be a sense of deja vu Saturday when the Greyhounds (16-6-2) and Jaguars (18-3-2) face off in the Class 6A championship for the third time in four seasons.
The Jaguars have had Ocean Springs' number until recently when the Hounds earned a 2-1 victory over their rival in January.
Even with the rare win over Madison Central, OSHS coach Jeff French said the team's current play gives him hope his team can snap its championship drought.
"One way to look at it is we're playing really well at the right time so it doesn't matter who we play," French said. "We just need to come out, execute, play our hearts out and leave it all on the field."
OSHS returns nine players who either started or played significant minutes last year. French hopes his team can lean on the experience to get the elusive victory.
"We're where we need to be as far as experience in the big game," he said. "Now we've got to get over the hurdle and bring it home."
Madison Central boasts one of the best players in the state in Ridge Brohaugh. In addition to marking him, OSHS will need to be particularly sharp defending set pieces and throw-ins.
"Since we've gotten into the playoffs that's what we've worked on, defending set pieces and throw-ins," French said.
Ocean Springs stamped its ticket to state by beating Oak Grove 3-0, Gulfport 2-0, and Brandon 3-2 in a shootout. The Jags defeated Southaven 3-0, Clinton 5-4 and Tupelo 2-1 in overtime.