by Anthony VanCourt, Contributing Writer

History was made in the Boys 6A Soccer State Championship final Saturday night, February 17, 2024 when Long Beach defeated Center Hill 3-2 to capture their fourth consecutive state title becoming the first team to do so since the 2008 Pearl Pirates (2005-2008).

“It’s incredible even though I don’t think it’s really hit yet, but I’m so happy for our team, school and community. We have worked so hard all year to earn the opportunity to play for another championship and to do it again for a 4th time is just an amazing accomplishment. It’s a testament to the incredibly strong foundation that has been built over the last 8 or 9 years by former players and coaches,” Bearcat head coach Matt DeFillips said after the final whistle.

The Bearcats got two goals from Braiden Bonds who was named as the games most valuable player, but it was a perfectly slotted free-kick from Easton van Norden with under a minute remaining in the match that would give the Bearcats their place in the record books.

As the game began with temperatures in the 30s and a strong wind in their face, Long Beach came out swinging when Jason Marshall continued a run down left wing sending a cross into the Center Hill goal area that found Braiden Bonds to open the scoring in just the second minute of the match.

Center Hill would get an equalizer with 19:08 remaining in the first half when a Mustang free-kick sent into the box bounced awkwardly allowing Center Hill forward Michael Sanders to head the ball past Bearcat keeper Alan Long tying the match 1-1.

In the second half, the score would remain tied until a determined Bonds added another goal for the Bearcats with 12 minutes left in the match giving Long Beach a 2-1 lead and sending their fans into a frenzy.

Unfortunately, excitement would have to be put on hold as the referee awarded Center Hill a penalty with 5:11 left in the match. Sanders stepped up to put away the penalty tying the game 2-2.

The last 5 minutes of the match would be back and forth and extra-time seemed a certainty until the Bearcats were awarded a free-kick just outside the Mustangs’ penalty area as the clock ticked down toward a minute remaining.

Bearcat senior Easton van Norden claimed the opportunity and blasted the free-kick from 22 yards out into the side net giving the Bearcats a 3-2 victory of the Mustangs and their fourth straight state championship.

In addition to scoring the game-winning goal for the Bearcats, Easton van Norden was also awarded the Scholar Athlete Award for Long Beach prior to the match.

“I’m just really proud of the boys and all that we were able to accomplish together this season. It was just an amazing journey with this group of amazingly talented young men,” said DeFillips.

This championship victory sends out Bearcats seniors Jason Marshall, Alexander Mink, Landon VanCourt, and Easton van Norden with four state championships to close out their high school careers. VanCourt and Marshall will continue their playing careers at Pearl River Community College while Alexander Mink is still deciding who will win his services next season. Easton van Norden plans to attend Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to play tennis.

The Bearcats record improved to 18-4-1 which is the most wins in a season for the Bearcats since their championship game appearance streak began in 2018. All from a team that lost eight seniors to graduation from the 2023 championship team and one of their best players from the 2023 season in Vincenzo Jeanfreau.  This team showed grit and determination in the face of adversity all season and never gave up.

“We show up and compete every day on and off the field and I think you see that in the way we fought together all season long. We get everyone’s best game and we just keep going and striving together,” said DeFillips on the Bearcats resilience this season.

(Photos taken by Anthony VanCourt/The Gazebo Gazette)

Long Beach Soccer Game Stats:

Goals: Braiden Bonds (2), Easton van Norden

Assists: Jason Marshall, Drew Dixon