Familiar Soccer Rivalry Has Deep Roots

West Jones and Ridgeland met again this year in the 5A girl's title game to settle a familiar rivalry that has come about within the past few years. Like most rivalries, the game ended in dramatic fashion, with West Jones scoring in the final two minutes of regulation to tie the game at 2-2 and force overtime.

West Jones' high pressure offense finally won out, as Macie Wallace added to her all-time scoring record (203 career goals) with the final goal of the game to seal a come-from-behind victory over the six-time champion Lady Titan squad for their second championship in three years.

There is more to this rivalry than their recent match-ups in games that, more often than not, have determined the destiny of both programs for that particular season. In fact, the catalyst for both squads' success is almost rooted in pure dumb luck in one of the most unlikely of soccer-friendly towns: Laurel, Mississippi.

Craig Winship was an assistant basketball coach at West Jones High School in 1998. He also coached in the Upwards Basketball League that his oldest daughter, CJ, played in. There happened to be a shortage of coaches that year, so Craig asked Tony Buckley, whom he knew through the local recreational soccer league to help out. Though Tony didn't know much about basketball, he agreed to do it.

"It was pretty funny", commented Winship. "Tony would report scores like 11-10. He only counted the baskets made."

When the local youth soccer league started up in the fall, Tony, a soccer coach, recruited Craig, since he knew he owed him a favor. Craig realized he couldn't use his lack of knowledge of the game as an excuse, and signed up. His team met Tony's in their first league game and beat them, and from then on, he developed a passion for the game.

The two competed against each other at the U10 level before joining forces for the second season of it. By U12, they coached their team to Division II and State Games championships. As Tony ran for District Attorney that year, Craig enlisted another father to help guide the same team back to defend both of those titles. The games were getting easier, and both knew it was time to advance the level of their play. They decided to petition the board to allow the girls to form a Division I select team.

"We're talking PowerPoint's and several meetings to try and push this thing through," said Craig. "The league's mission statement basically stated it existed to offer every child of Jones County the opportunity to pursue playing soccer to the highest mark of their ability; it was a no-brainer that these kids needed to consistently play against a high level of competition, and select offers the best opportunity to do so."

After much initial resistance, they finally got their wish and were allowed to officially join the select ranks. The club team pulled from a considerably smaller area than most teams they'd face, so the coaches decided to allow younger players to play to allow for depth. "You had to," remarked Tony. "We had about six kids that were really the age below, and I think we had two that were two age groups below. I coached the offense and Craig coached defense, and it worked really well that way. We were fortunate the girls accepted the roles we asked them to play, and that made a big difference."

That select team placed third in the state championship that year, narrowly losing to perennial powerhouse JFC which put them in the third place game. They went on to defeat defending champions Hattiesburg Futbol Club. The team lasted another two seasons before ending its run with a tour of Tony's hometown of Sheffield, England. The girls played a round of games against a few English Premier League youth teams (Sheffield United, Doncaster Rovers, and Leeds United).

As of this writing, Jones County schools have claimed four MHSAA state championships and an MAIS title in the past three years on the girl's side(West Jones girls: 2 Northeast Jones girls: 2 Laurel Christian girls: 1). Laurel Christian's boys team added another to the haul recently. All of the girls' teams have significant ties to the Laurel Futbol club team coached by the two men. In the four years Craig has been at Ridgeland (the past three as head coach), they have left champions twice.

The 2010 title was special for him as his daughter, CJ, played a large role in that championship and was deservedly named Miss Soccer. It was also the first for Craig as a head coach. "I was really proud of Craig when he won. He came a long way; he did what most others wouldn't do. CJ fell in love with soccer over basketball. Instead of trying to sway her, he adapted and became a soccer coach. He came a long way in a short amount of time, and it's a testament to the coach he is.

Winship has similar praise for his friend: "He's my mentor. Absolutely. He had a tough assignment when he was asked to take over the Lady Mustangs just days before the start of the season. I am very proud of the way Tony brought hard work, determination, and character to his team this year. Tony's enthusiasm and knowledge of the game are two things that helped me get started in the game. We had the opportunity to work on four state championship teams in the Laurel Jones County Soccer Association during the early 2000's. I learned a great deal from him over that time. He's a great guy who I am blessed to still count as one of my best friends."

In a sport where credence doesn't usually roam outside of a few select areas of the state, Tony Buckley and Craig Winship have made it hard for people to pass over Jones County when speaking of quality soccer within the state. While the initial team did eventually fold, one can still see their influence survives. "I think we had all but one starter that played select this year. Several kids are involved with the Hattiesburg program and Gulf Coast Dynamos… a few play for Mississippi Fire. Laurel had a boy's select team come after us, and I think two girls teams. Division II is still prevalent. Parents may have seen how we did it (select) and benefited from it; maybe we had a trickle-down effect. I hope we did." Tony stated.

With the way things are going these days, one would certainly think so.

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