OAKWOOD -- For all the drama, passion and skill on display, the difference on Friday night came down to simple desire and effort.
The Johnson and West Hall boys soccer teams played out a mesmerizing version of the Battle of Oakwood, pushing each other to the limit -- but it was Luis Hernandez that pushed the Knights over the finish line.
After impressive first half goals from each team, Hernandez settled the match with just over 15 minutes to play, prodding a loose corner kick into the West Hall net for a 2-1 victory at Spartan Stadium.
"It was an incredible feeling," Hernandez said of his game-winner. "That play (that led to the goal) is something we work on, and it showed that hard work pays off."
Hernandez's strike capped a second half in which the Knights focused on out-working and closing down the Spartans' counter-attacking offense -- rather than the end-to-end attacking flair that marked the first half.
"We gave them too much space in the first half, and we had to work off the ball much harder; we did that in the second half," Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. "And it didn't surprise me that's how the second goal came -- by being scrappy and with hard work."
The victory helped the Knights (ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA) maintain their perfect record at 9-0, and Shirley hopes it will set Johnson up for a strong stretch run.
"This can be a good springboard for us," Shirley said. "That was the toughest team we've faced so far, and they made us work. We're trying to build momentum as we go forward and look toward winning a region title and making a deep run in state."
The fact that Friday's contest had no postseason or region implications took little away from a top 10 showdown -- the Spartans (6-3-2) entered ranked No. 5 in Class AAA -- between old and close rivals.
"My cousin is on that team, and while they're a great team, we want to beat them badly," Hernandez said.
That desire was certainly on display early, and West Hall's Samuel Coto signaled the Spartans' intentions when he forced a save from Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido after just 30 seconds.
Yet Johnson began heaping pressure on West Hall as the half waned, wresting control of the midfield through Israel Avila, Fidel Rodriguez and Luis Deltoro and forcing West Hall to defend deep -- though the Spartans managed to menace Johnson's defense through counter-attacks led by Omar Castillo.
The Knights made their pressure pay off, however, when Hernandez found Fabian Abarca unmarked inside the Spartans penalty area.
Running on to Hernandez's deft chip, Abarca bore down on goal and slotted a nine-yard shot into the net for a 1-0 lead with 15:23 left in the first.
The goal only hardened West Hall's resolve, however -- most especially Omar Castillo's.
Taking control of a loose ball at midfield, Omar Castillo drove through the Johnson defense, tearing down the left wing before hooking a perfectly angled cross for Adan Castillo -- who finished the lightning move in style, ripping a 15-yard shot into the Johnson goal to knot the score at 1-1 with 10:14 remaining.
Johnson looked for its own answer, forcing two more saves from West Hall keeper Wilkin Velasquez -- the most impressive coming on a 25-yard blast from Avila that a fully-stretched Wilkin pushed just over the crossbar.
Yet the Spartans held firm and ensured a 1-1 deadlock at the half.
The end-to-end action that defined the first half waned over the final 40 minutes -- though the passion did not, as the two teams traded fouls and battled for every loose ball.
That spirit proved the route to goal for the Knights, as Hernandez pounced on a loose ball in the West Hall penalty area after a corner kick fell to Wilkin but popped free -- allowing the Johnson striker to poke a point-blank shot into the net for a 2-1 lead with 15:30 remaining.
Thanks to an air-tight Knights defense West Hall rarely looked like finding a second equalizer, and Johnson held on for the victory.
"This is so much fun being able to enjoy this win," Hernandez said. "Now we've got to focus on the next game and keep working."
Johnson travels to Stephens County on Monday in a Region 8-AAAA contest.
West Hall, meanwhile, will play host to White County on Tuesday in a Region 7-AAA game.
JOHNSON GIRLS 3,
WEST HALL 0
The Lady Knights took control with three unanswered goals over a 10 minute span early in the second half.
Chandler Steele, Evelin Aviata and Kelsey Dumanowsky each struck for Johnson (3-5-1) to break open a scoreless contest, starting with Steele's penalty kick goal five minutes after halftime.
Aviata made 2-0 just minutes later on an assist from Steele, who played Aviata in one-on-one with the West Hall goalkeeper.
Dumanowsky then took advantage of a long clearance from her own goalkeeper, providing Hannah Hodge with an assist when she sprinted on to a long ball and scored with 24:21 remaining.
"We've played some tough teams so far, and it's starting to pay off," Lady Knights coach Phil Higgins said. "We're really starting to build some momentum."
Johnson is also 2-1 in Region 8-AAAA and will return to region play next week, facing Stephens County on Monday and Chestatee in a huge showdown on Friday.
West Hall (3-7-1), meanwhile, will play host to White County on Tuesday.