GAINESVILLE -- Teenagers often think they're ready for more responsibility. On Tuesday, members of the Gainesville boys soccer team had that responsibility thrust upon them.
And the Red Elephants handled it pretty well.
Heading into the state playoffs on the back of a gut-wrenching region championship loss to Clarke Central, Gainesville dusted itself off and responded with a 2-0 first-round win over Tucker.
And the Red Elephants did it without head coach Rick Howard on the field.
In fact, Howard, who was ejected for arguing with officials in the Clarke Central loss, was nowhere near City Park.
"I've never experienced not having a coach on the field; it was strange," Red Elephants senior captain Ricardo Gomez said. "But coach talked to us before the game and got us pumped up and told us it was up to the team. He told us, 'y'all don't need me to win this.' "
What Gainesville did need was goals, and the Red Elephants (15-2-1) produced one in each half -- while also watching two disallowed and striking the Tucker crossbar twice.
Diego Porras and Cesar Regaldo provided the firepower, while Gainesville's gyroscopic midfield and hard-working defense kept Tucker at bay for most of the contest to move on to the second round of the postseason for the sixth straight season.
"I knew they were ready for this; coach Howard got them prepared to play without him this week," assistant coach Dane Robar said. "It put a lot of responsibility on the players, but you could tell they were up for it."
The Red Elephants signaled their attacking intentions from the start, forcing Tucker goalkeeper Sordom Nonayor into action inside the first 10 minutes -- as Gomez ripped a 25-yard free kick that Nonayor denied with a diving save.
There was nothing Nonayor could do just two minutes later, however, as Gainesville pieced together a precision strike that ended with Porras' header into an empty net. The move started with Regaldo's charge down the left wing before the senior crossed for Erik Bonilla, who out-leapt a defender for the ball and directed a perfect header for Porras, who ran on to the pass and buried his own header for a 1-0 advantage with 29:49 left in the first half.
The goal only served to whet the Red Elephants' appetite for more offense, and Nonayor had to be alert to beat out two near-post shots in the minutes following the opening strike. Gainesville's Christian Ochoa also beat Nonayor to a cross in the penalty area and chipped a shot past the keeper -- only to watch Tigers defender Kofi Bates clear the ball off the goal line to maintain a 1-0 scoreline at the half.
"We knew we needed to score again, because Tucker was good enough to get a goal, and we didn't want to leave it that close," said Gomez, who -- along with Josh Panter, Roberto Nunez, Ochoa and Regaldo -- did much to keep the Tigers pinned back and working just to stay in the contest.
Tucker's efforts nearly paid off eight minutes after the interval when a long ball broke kindly for Tucker's Hermann Kounga Kayim. The striker bore down on Gainesville goalkeeper Gage Turner but could only sky his 12-yard shot over the crossbar.
The near-escape proved one of only two serious threats Turner faced during the contest -- and by the time the Tigers hit the crossbar with five minutes remaining Gainesville owned a 2-0 lead thanks to Regaldo's 18-yard strike. The senior reacted quickly to a loose ball at the top of the Tucker penalty area and rolled a side-footed shot off the Tigers' right upright and into the net with 7:38 remaining.
But for two close calls and a stubborn Tucker crossbar Gainesville's lead might have been more. Ochoa and Porras each slammed efforts off the Tigers' goal frame and also saw strikes disallowed -- Ochoa's impressive run beating a defender and getting the better of Nonayor only to see the keeper's tackle force the ball onto his own arm before prodding a shot into an open net.
"It wasn't always pretty but that's the game sometimes," Gomez said. "We need to keep improving and play better next week."
The Red Elephants will take on the winner of the No. 1 seeded Lithia Springs vs. No. 4 seeded Sequoyah match-up in the second round -- again without Howard, who must sit out two contests.
"The hardest challenge will be next week because (we could) be on the road without coach," Robar said. "But the boys are so good at stepping up to the challenge."
Should Lithia Springs prevail, second-seeded Gainesville will travel for the contest. A Sequoyah victory would keep the Red Elephants at home.