Cougars advance to state championship

Published 8:53 pm Monday, February 12, 2024

BROOKHAVEN — Cooper Strickland converted a late penalty to send Brookhaven Academy to the MAIS Division II State Championship game Monday night. BA beat East Rankin Academy 3-2 to claim the south state championship. 

At full time, Senior forward Yojan Hernandez collapsed to the field and laid on his stomach. BA Head Coach Alex Brown picked him up and carried him for a few yards before setting him down to continue celebrating.

Fans rang cowbells, waved signs, jumped up and down with glee and yelled to their heart’s content. Brookhaven Academy won its first south state championship in boys soccer. 

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“To win the first south state championship in the history of BA is special,” Brown said. “I’m so proud of the boys and the work they have put in. They have worked their tails off. They are such a blessing to work with. They are such good boys.” 

Brookhaven Academy took a 2-0 lead into halftime thanks to goals by Strickland and Hernandez. East Rankin nearly conceded a third goal on a penalty kick when Hernandez was fouled in the box. 

Hernandez’s penalty kick was saved and the follow up shot did not find the target. East Rankin scored with 13 minutes left in the match on a turnover in possession to cut the lead down to 2-1. About five minutes later, East Rankin steered a header from a corner kick into the back of the goal to tie things up.

The match’s pressure had reached a boiling point as the fans grew louder and louder, players flew around the field trying to make the decisive play to send their program to a state championship. BA managed to win a series of throw ins with about two minutes left in the match. 

Hernandez drew a foul in the box and the stage was set for a hero to step up to the penalty spot. Strickland, a senior, placed the ball down and took a deep breath as he backed away from the ball. When the center ref blew his whistle, Strickland slotted his penalty kick into the bottom right corner past the keeper and wheeled away in celebration. Hernandez reflected on the moment after the match. 

“It feels amazing. I can’t describe how it feels,” he said. “I missed a penalty but was able to win one and I handed the ball over to Cooper. I trusted him. He has confidence and is a good penalty taker. I knew when I won the penalty he would put it away for us and we would win.” 

It took an entire team for Brookhaven Academy to earn the win. Goalkeeper Ben Watts made some heads up plays and saved a few threatening shots. Defenders and midfielders worked hard to cover ground in the second half. Slick conditions made it a challenge but the Cougars hustled back into position when they lost footing. 

East Rankin offered something to Brookhaven Academy no other team had done this year. They punched the Cougars in the mouth and put them in an adverse situation. Brookhaven Academy responded by fighting back. Brown told the team he was proud of the way they responded. 

“It was such an emotional game. East Ranking really made us earn it,” Brown said. “They are a very good team and they are really well coached. They threw a few things at us that we weren’t prepared for but we made adjustments and the boys responded well.” 

It is the first state championship game appearance for the boys soccer program. The match will be played Thursday at Jackson Prep against Pillow Academy. According to the MAIS website, kickoff is at 4 p.m. Thursday. 

Hernandez said the job was not finished yet and they will get to work for the state championship game. He took time to hug the coaching staff on numerous occasions following the win. 

“I’m grateful for my coaches. They have welcomed me and helped me get better since I got here at BA,” Hernandez said. 

Brown went over tactics at halftime in a blowout win over Parklane Academy last week. He has really elevated the quality and expectations of the program. While he predicted the team would be playing for a state championship at the start of the season, he knows they have a little more work to do. 

“We know we have a tough challenge in the final,” Brown said. “We will get back to the training grounds tomorrow afternoon.”

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