The blue, yellow and red stars and stripes of Mississippi's new state flag rippled under the Friday night lights in Mississippi State University's soccer complex as the Bulldogs took on the #7 Arkansas Razorbacks in their last regular-season game.
While the match ended in a 2-1 loss for MSU, Head Coach James Armstrong said he was proud of how his team stuck to their own style of play.
Arkansas played a strong aerial and physical game, capitalizing on headers and long balls, while MSU got the ball down and played a controlled possession game.
Ten minutes into the game, Arkansas scored off of a scuffle around the goal and then eight minutes later found the back of the net again.
While these early two goals would be Arkansas' only scores of the match, Armstrong said he thought the beginning of the game was the Bulldogs' strongest performance.
"This is going to sound really crazy, but I thought we started the game really well, even though we conceded an early goal. And then I thought the response after the second goal was really good as well," Armstrong said.
Hailey Farrington-Bentil, a junior from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the player responsible for the Bulldogs' lone goal of the game, agreed.
"We were really going down their necks the first five or 10 minutes," Farrington-Bentil said.
Despite being down 2-0 before the 20th minute, the Bulldogs rallied and scored a goal before the half was over.
"When you go two-nil down … you have a choice. You either decide to feel sorry for yourself and give up, or you try and get after it and get back in the game. And that's what we did one play at a time," Armstrong said.
Around the 30th minute, Olivia Simpson crossed the ball into the box. Monigo Karnley passed it to Farrington-Bentil, and Farrington-Bentil knocked it into the back of the net to give the Bulldogs a goal against the Razorbacks. A chorus of cowbells and cheers erupted from small groups of fans in their socially-distanced white circles.
The goal was a testament to teamwork, Farrington-Bentil said.
"That goal we scored — that was a real team goal. It was hard work, but it was everybody's work put together. It was the person that crossed it, MK set it, I was the person that was just there to tap it in. Even before that, the people cheering us on everyone around us — everybody had a part in that goal," Farrington-Bentil said.
The second half was scoreless for both teams, resulting in the Razorbacks being crowned the SEC regular-season champions.
Going into the game, Farrington-Bentil said their goal was to improve on their performance against the Razorbacks from last year — a 6-1 loss.
"I think as a whole we wanted to come out and fight as hard as we could because we know we can beat this team, so I think as a whole we wanted to be tougher and have more grit," Farrington-Bentil said.
Farrington-Bentil said she believes the Bulldogs outplayed the Razorbacks, something the score does not reflect.
"I just think that there were a couple errors, and they capitalized on them. And that's it. I think we were the better team. We played around them. But it's just about who scores, and they capitalized on our errors," Farrington-Bentil said.
Head Coach Armstrong said Arkansas's team was stacked with upperclassmen, while MSU's team lost their deep bench to several injuries and has been consistently playing five freshmen in their starting lineup.
The Bulldogs will take the pitch next for the SEC Tournament, which will be held from Nov. 13-22 in Orange Beach and will be single-elimination. They await their seed number, which will be decided by points per game.
Of the season as a whole, both Armstrong and Farrington-Bentil said they were proud of the team's development this year.
"There's been a lot of growth, I think," Armstrong said. "We fight with everybody. We fight against everybody with a ton of grit, a ton of heart, a ton of character. We were scrappy in the last 10 seconds of the game tonight, and that's just testament to this group. They're a close-knit group that want to play for each other. I think that's been their biggest growth is their toughness, their mentality and their overall desire to fight for each other."
Armstrong said he has been very impressed with how his players have handled all the changes to the season resulting from COVID-19. Each player has to get tested three times a week and constantly handle the unknown of possibly receiving a positive test, as well as the social sacrifices to prevent getting the virus.
"Has it been mentally tough? Yes. Is COVID fatigue a real thing? Yes. But at the end of the day, they're doing it because they love this game. They love this team. They love this school, and they're willing to put those sacrifices in," Armstrong said.
Armstrong said his players' dedication should not go unnoticed.
"I just think it's important for all of us, myself too and everybody else around, to understand the sacrifices that they're making to represent Mississippi State in the best way that they can," Armstrong said.