OAKWOOD -- Rick Howard isn't one to gush, but even he couldn't help himself after witnessing Ricardo Gomez's free kick on Friday night.
"That's what you live for, to see stuff like that," the Gainesville boys soccer coach said of his captain's jaw-dropping 27-yard strike that dipped perfectly under the West Hall crossbar and kickstarted the Red Elephants' offense in a 3-0 win in Oakwood.
"That was magical, and it was huge for us."
Indeed, the expertly-placed set piece proved just what Gainesville needed, ending a first half of offensive frustration and setting the stage for a strong second half performance in which Gomez set up a second goal and made the third -- earning a penalty kick that he converted with ease to seal the outcome with 22:29 remaining.
"Ricardo is our leader out there; he really helps make my job easy," Howard said. "This win gets our momentum going as we head into the region season, and I like where we are right now... We still have a ways to go. But we're getting better every game."
The Red Elephants (5-1-1) -- currently ranked seventh in Class AAAAA -- showed both determination on offense and solidity on defense. For once Gainesville grabbed the lead the outcome rarely looked in doubt, as the Red Elephants held West Hall -- currently ranked fourth in Class AAA -- to just a handful of goal-scoring opportunities.
"We really came into our own defensively in the McIntosh game," Howard said of a 1-0 loss to the top-ranked team in Class AAAAA on March 1. "I really liked the way we kept our shape tonight. I would have liked to see us put more pressure on them in the midfield there, but we solved that at halftime."
The Spartans (4-2-2) created just one shot on goal in the second half -- a free kick that goalkeeper Gage Turner smothered -- and that came after the Red Elephants built a 3-0 lead.
Erik Bonilla made it 2-0 for the visitors 10 minutes into the restart, leaping over the West Hall defense to head home a Gomez corner kick.
Eight minutes later, Gainesville's midfield maestro put the contest out of reach, winning a penalty kick after battling Johann Corona for possession at the endline, just inside the West Hall penalty area. Gomez dusted himself off and planted the ensuing spot kick into the West Hall net with 22:29 remaining.
After his first half strike, it was a predictable finish from the senior.
West Hall battled Gainesville to a standstill for the first 30 minutes -- though the Red Elephants failed to convert a handful of scoring opportunities, including a trio of shots from Bonilla. Spartans goalkeeper Wilkin Velasquez smothered two of the opportunities, while Bonilla fired high and wide on the the third with 25 minutes left in the first half. Velasquez also tipped a 35-yard free kick from Gomez just over his own crossbar with 16 minutes remaining in the half.
Meanwhile, West Hall grew in confidence with each passing minute and began to put consistent pressure on the visitors as the half waned, including a well-struck free kick from Omar Castillo that Turner scrambled away.
"The way they were coming at us in the first half made it hard; they were spreading us out and keeping us from building much," Howard said. "They're a good team, and it could have gone another way really quickly."
Gomez ensured it did not, however, whipped a bending, dipping free kick from the left side that gave Velasquez no chance and Gainesville a 1-0 lead with 9:21 left in the first half.
"I'm pleased with the result; we didn't lose our composure," Howard said. "I miss the old Hall County region when we had games like these all the time. They're very competitive, and there's a lot of pride at stake. I wish we could play more of them now. But our region schedule is so spread out it hampers our non-region schedule."
Gainesville will begin the heart of its Region 8-AAAAA schedule next week, facing four straight league games, including Tuesday's game against Loganville at City Park.
West Hall, meanwhile, will look to bounce back on Tuesday in a Region 7-AAA contest against Buford in Oakwood.
GAINESVILLE GIRLS 5,
WEST HALL 4
The Lady Red Elephants stormed back from a 4-1 halftime deficit to clinch the win in Oakwood, surging toward the victory with three strikes inside the final 15 minutes.
Jazmin Penado and Margaret Carpenter helped fire the comeback, hooking up for two of the final three goals, while Penado found Alyssa Turner for the game-winner -- the freshman Turner running on to a chipped pass and burying her shot with 4:24 remaining.
"We're a really young team, so we know we're going to have ups and downs," said Lady Red Elephants coach Mark Wade, whose roster features 14 freshmen and sophomores combined -- compared with just two seniors. "It's an extremely talented group though, and I challenged them at halftime, and they responded."
The Lady Red Elephants (6-0-1) ratcheted up the pressure after the interval, pinning the Lady Spartans into their own half over the final 20 minutes.
After Carpenter pulled Gainesville within 4-2 courtesy a second half goal, she set up Penado to make it 4-3 with 14:53 remaining, driving a free kick across the West Hall goal that Penado bundled over the line.
Turner and Elizabeth Fischer each came close to knotting the contest, but Penado found the killer touch with 8:24 remaining -- picking out a Carpenter free kick with a back-post header for 4-4.
Exactly four minutes later Turner came up with the winner.
"I thought the biggest thing in the second half was how we defended," Wade said. "We played exceptional defense there, and it's the first time I can honestly say we stopped a team."
It didn't look as though that would be the case in the first half, as Katie Forrester and Gabrielle Ligas combined for two goals apiece for the Lady Spartans (2-5).
"Forrester was tearing us up there early," Wade said. "Sometimes it was 1 vs. 2 (Forrester against two Gainesville defenders), and she was winning."
Yet Gainesville also managed a goal through Fischer and held on until the interval, when the Lady Red Elephants swung the contest on its head.
"We graduated eight seniors from last year," Wade said. "We're having a lot of fun right now with this group; we just have to learn what we're capable of."