By Robert Wilson
Photos by Chris Todd and Brad Bridges

         Tate Collins is going to play college football at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, but the soccer coach down there might want to take a look at Collins, too. 

         Collins scored two goals to help No. 2 seed Jackson Academy to a 4-2 victory over No. 1 seed Hartfield Academy for its second straight MAIS Division I boys soccer championship at Madison-Ridgeland Academy.

         JA finished 17-2-1 and won its 10th straight game and defeated Hartfield for the second time in three meetings. JA won its 10th state title in school history, Chris Tucker led the Raiders to four titles in the 1990s and Nic Henderson four from 2007-2010. This is the fifth straight season JA has played in the state championship game, losing to Jackson Prep the first three seasons and defeating Prep last year to end Prep’s 10-year state championship streak.

Hartfield, which had won the Division II title for the past two seasons, finished 16-2 with both losses to JA. Hartfield defeated JA 1-0 on Dec. 10 at JA and JA won 5-0 Feb. 3 at Hartfield. JA ended Hartfield’s 23-game unbeaten streak. 

         Collins, who transferred to JA from Madison Central this year, played quarterback in football and helped JA to an 8-4 season and a Class 6A semifinal finish. He passed for 1,755 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran for 688 yards and six TDs. Monday night, Collins used his head and legs to score two goals to give JA a 3-0 lead. He headed in a pass from Hadley to give JA a 2-0 lead with 8 minutes to play before halftime. Then, Collins scored on an indirect kick when he fired a ball into the top right hand corner of the net with 24 minutes to play for a 3-0 lead.

         “This season couldn’t have gone better,” Collins said. “From losing our first two district games to Hartfield and Prep, to beating both to cap off the season. It feels really great. We really started to gel towards the last few games of the regular season and that momentum just carried through all the way to the end. I can’t thank, my teammates and Coach Buff (JA coach Phillip Buffington) enough for all the hard work.”

Collins also scored the only goal in the 1-0 semifinal over Jackson Prep when he kicked in an indirect kick from 33 yards out seven minutes into the second half.

JA’s defense, which had not allowed a goal in nine consecutive games and only 10 all season (only five against MAIS teams), had its scoreless streak broken when Hartfield junior Matthew Barone scored with 22 minutes to play to cut the JA lead to 3-1. The last goal allowed was on Jan. 17 in a 4-1 loss to Prep. Hartfield senior Caleb Jones scored four minutes later to cut the JA lead to 3-2.

Senior goalkeeper Andrew Burks kept teams out of the goal for 12 games this season. Only two teams – Prep and Southside, La. – scored more than one goal on JA this season before Hartfield did Monday night. The Raiders defense is led by seniors Hudson Hadley and Will Rhodes at outside back and Marcus Harris and Banks McNair at center back. Sophomore Bo Barbour is the top defensive player off the bench.

JA freshman Ben Jones, who scored the first goal of the game with 21 minutes before halftime, pushed the Raiders’ lead to 4-2 with a goal with 5 minutes to play.

         Third-year JA coach Phillip Buffington won his second straight boys title and third straight title – he defeated Prep for the girls title last fall – as a coach.

         As a player, Buffington led Prep to four straight state titles. Buffington, who is considered one of the top boys players to ever play soccer in Mississippi, set the Mississippi record with 61 goals his senior season at Prep in 2005. He played one year at Marshall then three years at Mississippi College. He played three years of pro soccer, two in the United States and one in Australia. He has been coaching club soccer with the Mississippi Fire, now Mississippi Rush, since 2012 and was head coach at Manchester Academy in Yazoo City from 2013-2016 before coming to JA in the fall of 2016.

         “I thought we executed exactly as we talked about leading up to this game in the first half,” Buffington said. “We created a lot of good scoring chances and were able to get the two goals going into the break.

         “We made some bad decisions after the third goal going up 3-0 and credit to Hartfield for staying engaged and really making the last 25 minutes extremely tight for us until we were able to get our fourth goal at the end of the game.”

         “They are a quality team, and we knew we would have our hands full tonight,” said Hartfield coach Jake Benton, whose team scored 63 goals and allowed only 15 this season. “I’m extremely proud of my guys for never giving up. When you go down 3-0 it’s easy to drop your head and sulk. My boys kept fighting and were able to make it exciting for the fans. My seniors have helped build this program into something special and I’m forever grateful to them. We have been to four straight championships and that’s something they can always hang their hat on. We learn from this game and move forward in order to grow for next season.”