OAKWOOD -- It may be Hall County's version of the "Super Classico," but Friday's showdown between state powerhouses Gainesville and Johnson was hardly a night for beautiful soccer.
Two determined rivals combined with a driving rain to produce an old-fashioned slugfest -- one decided by opportunity rather than the sublime.
And the Red Elephants were thrilled to take that opportunity.
Gainesville's Diego Porras pounced on one defensive lapse by the Knights, striking early in the second half for the game's lone goal in a 1-0 win for the No. 2-ranked team in Class AAAAA.
The setback was the first of the season for Johnson (15-1), ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA.
"I think it was just two incredibly good teams battling for everything; we were incredibly fortunate to get the win, but we also worked extremely hard for it," Gainesville coach Rick Howard said. "(Johnson) is one of the top five teams in the state, in any classification, and it's big to win a game like this."
Though the non-region contest meant little more than bragging rights in the standings it was hard to tell from the play on the field and the mood in the stands, as a number of boosters braved the weather to create a raucous atmosphere.
"It's just an intense game, and it helps us a lot," Howard said. "We're in the home stretch of the season, and we need to play as much tough competition as we can to get us ready for some of the big games ahead."
Tough was the byword of the night, as both teams stuck themselves into robust challenges and spent much of the contest keeping the other from gaining any sustained momentum.
Despite all the defensive work, both attacks still created plenty of chances, however -- including a near-miss for the Knights inside the final 30 seconds of the contest, as they searched for an equalizer to Porras' strike.
"Our defense showed a lot of heart; every single one of them that played back there," Howard said. "And they had to be on top of their game because we wanted to push forward more in the second half and put Johnson under more pressure -- which opened the game up. They took it to us in the first half."
The ploy worked, as Porras broke through with with a heady attack, gathering a loose ball after two defenders slipped to break free into the Johnson penalty area. The sophomore kept his nerve to roll a 12-yard shot past Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido for a 1-0 lead with 37:55 remaining.
Johnson nearly found the equalizer just three minutes later, as Fabian Abarca surged past three defenders, only to see Gainesville goalkeeper Gage Turner smother his 16-yard shot.
The Red Elephants (14-1-1) came close to doubling their lead with 11 minutes left to play when Caesar Regaldo met Ricardo Gomez's corner kick with a powerful header -- only to watch Salcido produce a diving save. Roberto Nunez blasted the resulting rebound just wide.
The game was far from finished, however, and Johnson's Luis Hernandez nearly leveled things inside the final minute, but Turner cradled his close-range effort with 27 seconds remaining.
"We went more direct in the second half, and with the way things were out there, that really helped us," Howard said. "(Johnson) did that in the first half and probably should have had a goal."
The two teams went end-to-end in the first 40 minutes, though neither gained consistent traction on the sodden pitch. The rain could not dampen the fireworks between the two rivals, however, and while it wasn't always pretty both teams created scoring chances.
Johnson's Luis Deltoro whacked a 30-yard free kick off the under side of the Gainesville crossbar 10 minutes into the game. Deltoro was also at the center of Johnson's best chance late in the half, drawing a foul from Gainesville's Christian Escalaria that was judged to take place just outside the Red Elephants' penalty area. Deltoro curled the ensuing free kick just over the crossbar.
In between Johnson's opportunities, Gainesville created two chances of its own -- both answered by dogged Knights defending. The first came with 24 minutes left in the first half when Kevin Flores reacted to head Nunez's drifting cross off his own goal line -- with the Red Elephants' Christian Ochoa lurking just behind.
Nine minutes later Knights goalkeeper Salcido dove to punch away Regaldo's curling 25-yard free kick.
The stalemate could only last so long, however.
"It was a good even game between two great teams," Howard said. "They had chances; we had chances. It was everything you would expect from this game."
Gainesville will look to clinch the Region 8-AAAAA title on Tuesday in a contest against Clarke Central at City Park.
Johnson, meanwhile, will look to bounce back on Monday in a make-up game at Lanier.
JOHNSON GIRLS 4,
Johnson opened the season 0-5-1 -- it seems almost a lifetime ago now.
The Lady Knights scored three second-half goals en route to their 10th straight victory on Friday and are now just one win removed from claiming a region championship.
Hannah Hester and Evelin Aviata produced impressive strikes over the final 40 minutes that, along with a Gainesville own-goal sealed the win.
Logan Dumanowsky gave the Lady Knights (10-5-1) a 1-0 lead midway through the first half, blasting a free kick over Lady Red Elephants goalkeeper Ashlie Gonzalez. It was the lone strike of the first half and set the stage for goal-fest after the interval.
Gainesville (11-3-2) struck first, as Breana Fair knotted the contest at 1-1 just seconds after the restart. Yet Johnson regained its composure and pushed back in front when it forced an own-goal from the Lady Red Elephants.
The Lady Knights then made it 3-1 on Hester's long-range effort, as she lofted a 25-yard strike over Gonzalez with 30:00 remaining.
Gainesville clawed another goal back, again from Fair, as she pounced on a mis-handled shot, knocking the ball away from Johnson goalkeeper Hannah Hodge and slotting home from close range for 3-2 with 27:15 left to play.
Johnson rode the pressure, however, and Aviata gave the home side some breathing room with a curling, 15-yard shot for a 4-2 lead with 25:06 remaining.
Gainesville battled for another answer but Hodge would not allow it, including an impressive diving save to deny Jazmin Penado with three minutes to play.
Johnson can go on to clinch the Region 8-AAAA title on Monday in a showdown at Lanier.
Gainesville will play host to Clarke Central on Tuesday, looking to lock up the No. 2 seed in Region 8-AAAAA.