High School Sports

Mary Persons hopes to continue postseason trend as region champ

FORSYTH -- If history follows form, Mary Persons is headed for a measure of success in the GHSA boys soccer tournament.

The last time the Bulldogs entered the field as a region champion (2013), they advanced to the quarterfinals.

“When we’ve been a region champion, we’ve carried that success pretty well (in the tournament),” said Mary Persons coach Allen Luton, whose team opens the Class AAAA playoffs at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at home against Bainbridge. “We feel like we can be a tough team when we show up and play like we’re capable.”

The Bulldogs have won four straight and 10 of their past 11 to enter the 32-team event at 14-4. The last loss was a 5-3 decision a month ago at Upson-Lee in Region 2-AAAA play.

Mary Persons’ only other loss on its 12-match region slate was a 3-2 loss at Perry. That followed a 1-0 non-region defeat against Spalding. The Bulldogs gave up an own goal in each of those losses.

“A couple of mistakes in the back (defense),” Luton said. “Those two could’ve easily gone the other way.”

Mary Persons’ other loss (2-1) came in the season’s first few weeks to Jackson, which is in the Class AAA playoffs as the Region 2 champion.

“We feel like we’re in a pretty good rhythm right now,” said Luton, whose team has outscored opponents 84-18. “We’re sharing the ball well and the guys have a pretty collective attitude.”

The region championship was the second for the Mary Persons seniors, a first, Luton said, for a class of seniors in the program.

Seniors on this year’s team are forward Josh Hampton, midfielder Ryan Shepard, midfielder/defender Jacob Berkebile and defender Addison Chapman. Hampton is a two-time Region 2-AAAA player of the year, and likely will add a third to his resume this season when the vote of the coaches is released.

The striker has scored more than 100 goals in his career, including 36 when he was a sophomore.

“He plays about anywhere, really,” Luton said of Hampton, the team’s offensive catalyst.

Mary Persons, however, has developed into more than a one-threat attack. Luton said taking Hampton out of the game is not the formula for opponent’s success that it might seem.

“Most of the time, we’ve had multiple guys scoring,” he said. “It seems like somebody steps up with a big goal in every game. We’re doing some things off the ball that are creating opportunities for other people, so you’re not going to be able to focus on one guy.”

With Hampton, Luton had no worries about his team’s offensive power entering the season. Defense, however, was another matter with the loss of its anchor in goal to graduation.

Enter junior James Harper, who’s had eight shutouts in goal during his first year with the program.

“At the beginning of the year, that was the one big hole I felt like we had to fill,” Luton said. “(Harper) has been remarkable. I can’t really think of a bad game he’s had. He has a good head and reads the game very well.

“Defense is very important for us going forward because I feel like we can score goals. We have to keep a clean sheet on the other guys.”

In Bainbridge (11-6), the Bulldogs face a team that dropped down this season from Class AAAAA. The Bearcats won their first match in last year’s playoffs.

Mary Persons was one-and-done in last year’s tournament as the region runner-up, falling to Jonesboro 2-1.

“This is a quality opponent as far as a four seed goes,” said Luton, who has scouted the Bearcats. “They’re very direct and have some guys who can burn you if you’re not paying attention to the ball. We’ll definitely have to bring it if we’re going to beat them.”