Saturday February 6th, 2016 4:17AM

Soccer: Area teams ready for strenuous first round slate

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
There was a time when when soccer teams from northeast Georgia struggled for recognition and respect -- at least of the nature reserved for the power programs of metro Atlanta.

That time has gone the way of $2-a-gallon gasoline, however, and, starting today, the area's highest-octane programs will look to add another chapter to what is fast becoming an impressive legacy, as the GHSA playoffs get underway.

Twenty-seven teams from 18 different schools will look to make their way through their respective brackets -- and many will do so with top 10 rankings and high expectations. (EDITOR'S NOTE: scroll down for a complete list of playoff contests for area teams.)

"Other coaches are watching what happens here, and no team from this area is under the radar anymore," said Chestatee boys coach Mike Herrin, who will lead his War Eagles into the playoffs as the third-ranked team in Class AAAA. "We've got a lot of good players that can play at the highest levels around here. Just look at what Gainesville has done, winning a state championship and playing for one last year. Johnson has also made deep runs and West Hall was a state runner-up just a few years ago."

Herrin's War Eagles (16-2) will look to make their own statement when they play host to LaGrange (7-9-2) at 6:30 p.m. in Gainesville, adding to what has already been a historic campaign -- one that includes Chestatee's first boys soccer region crown.

"It's big to break through that ceiling," Herrin said. "Everybody needs that validation that they can make that next step. We've been second a couple of times and had some good teams, but this year was a big step for us."

Featuring a senior-laden squad, the War Eagles edged Hall County rival Johnson (currently ranked fourth) for the 8-AAAA crown, winning in a penalty shootout after a scoreless tie in regulation and overtime.

"Everybody on this team has a role, and we'll be in good position if everyone does their jobs," Herrin said. "This group has matured and grown up together. We felt we should have been in the state quarterfinals last year, but they have that experience of disappointment and that has driven them to work harder."

That work has paid off in goals -- 62 so far this season (over three per game), led by forwards Cristian Felix (19 goals) and Marco Rebollar (18 goals).

"That's their job is to score, but the whole team contributes every time the opposing keeper has to pick the ball out of his net," Herrin said. "And on this roster of 22, 15 of my guys have scored. We have to maintain that kind of teamwork to be successful in the playoffs. We don't need anyone trying to force things and be a hero."

Certainly that has not been the case this season, though goalkeeper Andres Olivas has shown he can don a cape if necessary, stepping up in several contests this season, including the win over Johnson and in an impressive 4-1 defeat of Class AAAAA No. 6 Gainesville. And Herrin certainly expects another battle to the brink on Wednesday against LaGrange.

"You look at who they lost to in the region, all three teams have been in the top 10, and they were mostly close games," Herrin said. "It's going to be like a region game in terms of physicality and excitement."

In fact most teams from around the area can expect similar set-ups this week, facing what could be an intense slate of first-round foes, as programs from around the north half of the state square off.

In fact there are a number of top 10 showdowns scheduled for this week, including two tough battles for Dawson County soccer -- whose fifth-ranked girls face No. 4 Woodward Academy in the first round, while the No. 6 Dawson boys travel to take on No. 1 St. Pius. The seventh-ranked North Hall boys also play host to No. 10 Woodward Academy (defending Class AAA champ), while the ninth-ranked White County girls head to No. 3 Blessed Trinity.

"It's going to be interesting to see how our regions progress because all of the first and second round games are going to be extremely tough," Herrin said. "But I wouldn't be surprised to see two teams from any of our regions playing each other for state championships."

Chestatee believes it can be one of those programs.

"I think our regular season proves we can play with anyone," Herrin said.

Includes latest classification ranking

North Paulding at No. 6 Gainesville -- Wednesday

Class AAAA
LaGrange at No. 3 Chestatee -- Wednesday
Columbus at No. 4 Johnson -- Wednesday
Stephens County at No. 2 Carrollton -- Wednesday

Class AAA
Decatur at No. 2 West Hall -- Friday
No. 10 Woodward Academy at No. 7 North Hall -- Friday
East Hall at No. 4 Blessed Trinity -- Friday
No. 6 Dawson County at No. 1 St. Pius -- Friday
East Jackson at Cartersville -- Friday

Class AA
Bremen at No. 10 Riverside Military -- Friday
Jordan at Rabun County -- Friday
Union County at Chattahoochee County -- Friday

Class A
Pinecrest Academy at Lakeview Academy -- Friday

Rome at Flowery Branch -- Tuesday
Gainesville at No. 2 North Paulding -- Tuesday

Class AAAA
No. 4 Carrollton at Chestatee -- Tuesday
Johnson at No. 5 Alexander -- Tuesday
Stephens County at No. 3 Columbus -- Tuesday

Class AAA
Decatur at No. 2 Buford -- Thursday
No. 4 Woodward Academy at No. 5 Dawson County -- Thursday
Adairsville at No. 7 Jackson County -- Thursday
No. 9 White County at No. 3 Blessed Trinity -- Thursday
West Hall at No. 1 St. Pius -- Thursday
East Jackson at Lakeview, Ft. Oglethorpe -- Thursday

Class AA
Temple at Jefferson -- Thursday
Union County at Manchester -- Thursday
Rabun County at Bremen -- Thursday

Class A
Towns County at No. 8 Fellowship Christian -- Thursday
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