Tuesday May 31st, 2016 6:22AM

Soccer: A season on hold -- area programs battle snow, delays instead of each other

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
After nine months of ruminating on a missed opportunity, the Johnson boys soccer team was salivating over the start of the 2014 campaign.

The Knights -- and every soccer player in northeast Georgia -- will have to hold that anticipation a few days longer, however.

Thanks to the ice and snow that has hijacked the start of the spring sports campaign, teams throughout the area have already lost a number of games. And Johnson coach Brian Shirley hopes that doesn't equate to lost momentum.

"The guys were not happy with how the season ended last year, and they've been training hard and focused on showing they are even better this season," Shirley said.

The Knights came within a goal of forcing overtime in the second round against eventual Class AAAA champs Dalton and were the only team to challenge the Catamounts during their dominating playoff run -- Dalton won its four other postseason games by a combined 32-0 scoreline.

"We feel like we're improved over last season, and we're pretty strong top to bottom," Shirley said. "The guys have a ton of potential."

That statement could apply to a number of area programs this season -- and the preseason rankings reflect it.

While the Knights enter the campaign ranked fourth in Class AAAA, they are joined by fellow Region 8-AAAA rival Chestatee -- which won 8-AAAA last season -- at ninth. In Class AAAAA, the Gainesville boys are sixth according to the coaches poll on, while the Flowery Branch girls are eighth. The area teams that made the deepest postseason runs last season came from Region 7-AAA, and the East Hall boys and Buford girls enter 2014 ranked fifth and third, respectively. The Vikings and Lady Wolves each reached the state semifinals in 2013 but also know they face a tough challenge just in 7-AAA this season, where the West Hall boys are fourth and the Dawson County boys are eighth and Dawson County girls sixth.

Meanwhile, the Jackson County girls, from 8-AAA, are seventh. And, in Class AA, Riverside Military Academy's boys are seventh.

"Area soccer is as good as it probably has ever been, and we're playing a lot of area teams non-region to help us prepare for the region schedule," Flowery Branch girls soccer coach Katie Scali said. "We've also scheduled some big programs from Gwinnett County -- like Grayson (ranked seventh in AAAAAA), Archer and Dacula -- as well as South Forsyth (ranked sixth in AAAAAA) and Forsyth Central."

Of course just when those games will take place is now up in the air, at least for a few of the contests that have already been postponed -- as well as a number of matches originally scheduled for later in the week that are now in danger of postponement.

For area coaches the logistical pains are just a continuation of the preseason.

"This is the most challenging preseason I've ever been through," Gainesville boys coach Rick Howard said on Monday, adding, "between the rain and snow we've had five practices the last two weeks. That's put us behind a little in our development. Luckily we've got till March 8 before the region starts because we're going to have to use the non-region schedule to get us ready for the region."

Buford too has scheduled a tough non-region slate that includes metro-Atlanta powerhouses Greater Atlanta Christian, Wesleyan, Lovett, as well as Class AAAAAA squads Peachtree Ridge and Walton (currently eighth in Class AAAAAA).

"We've set goals to do better than last year and get into the championship game," said Lady Wolves coach Crystal Fowler, who saw her team fall to eventual Class AAA champ St. Pius 7-3 in the 2013 semifinals. "The girls are very determined and focused, and we've set a tougher schedule to get ready.

"It's been day-to-day getting ready for the season this year. Thankfully I have a number of experienced players to help get us ready."

Johnson too has scheduled a tough non-region slate, including a Feb. 18 contest against Archer -- which was supposed to have been the Knights' third contest of the campaign.

"It's been tough, but the guys have gotten a good amount of training in; they're making the best of it, rain, cold, wind, they've been out there working," Shirley said. "They're all in."

Now they just need a game to show for it.
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