Saturday February 6th, 2016 8:21PM

Soccer: Knights beat the rain, Cairo with quick start to seal semifinal berth

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
Scores added as received
McIntosh 6, Gainesville 1

Johnson 2, Cairo 1

West Hall 6, Peach County 0
North Hall 5, Islands 3
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OAKWOOD -- For about 12 minutes, it looked as though the Johnson boys soccer team was set for its best outing of the postseason.

Then came the rain.

Those first 12 minutes were so good, however, that they still carried the Knights through to a 2-1 win over Cairo in the Class AAAA quarterfinals.

"We started out of the gate full blast, aggressive and it paid off," Johnson coach Brian Shirley said.

It did indeed, as Johnson (20-1) used two Fabian Abarca goals inside the first 10 minutes to open a two-goal advantage that held until the Syrupmakers scored their lone goal with 1:53 remaining -- which came far too late to deny the Knights their first state semifinal appearance in nine years.

(NOTE: The Knights were also joined in the state semifinals by Class AAA team West Hall. Gainesville fell in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals, and North Hall will wait until Saturday for its semifinal shot.)

"This all started with summer ball, playing all-day seven-a-side tournaments together. The guys were gassed, tired and they're still out there giving it their all," said Shirley, whose team will take on Southeast Whitfield in the semifinal round. "You could see then that the guys were like, 'we're tired of falling short.' "

Friday's kickoff felt very much like a summer day in its own right, with warm, sticky air and a dry playing surface framing a blitzkrieg start from Johnson.

Abarca provided the sting to the first sustained Knights attack, pouncing on a pass from Barut Perez just over three minutes into the contest before curling a 20-yard shot past Cairo goalkeeper Cole Phillips.

The strike only invigorated Johnson, and the Knights continued to press the attack, pinging passes around a Syrupmakers defense that tried to pack its own half and deny the Knights room to play -- but only succeeded in inviting more trouble on its own goal.

Abarca was only happy to take the space allowed, and found room and the ball just 18 yards from the Cairo goal before turning and snapping another shot into the net from for a 2-0 lead with 30:03 left in the half. It was the sophomore's 31st strike of the campaign and had Johnson sailing toward a "Final Four" berth.

"(Abarca) had a good week of practice; you kind of had a feeling he would be on tonight from the way he played in practice," Shirley said of the attacking midfielder/striker. "He plays bigger than a sophomore. He plays like a four-year seasoned veteran."

Before Johnson could contemplate a rout, however, Mother Nature intervened, as a deluge enveloped Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium with 28 minutes remaining, water-logging the pitch in a matter of minutes. The conditions denied Johnson the momentum it had built, forcing more long and lofted passes in order to avoid the ball slowing to a crawl in various puddles.

"The rain hit and it put us on pause for a little while," Shirley said. "We started getting a rhythm a little bit right before the end of the first half, but it dumped so much it was hard to get the ball to move. It would hit and skip and then hit and die, so it was hard to feel that rain out."

Encouraged, Cairo (14-5-2) began to manufacture some attacks of its own and forced two saves from Knights goalkeeper Ivan Salcido over the final 10 minutes of the half -- including a 12-yard chip from Aldair Coretz that Salcido tipped just over his own crossbar.

Johnson and Abarca also narrowly missed a third goal inside the final five minutes when the sophomore smacked a shot off the Cairo goal post.

The rain let up during the interval, but the weather acted as a sort of "reset" button for the contest, and the two teams spent much of the second half battling in midfield, neither able to gain consistent traction -- a factor that played more into the visitor's hands than Johnson's.

"In the second half we were playing too safe, playing not to lose, and we took our foot off the gas," Shirley said.

Yet the Knights maintained a two-goal cushion for much of the final 40 minutes, Isaac Henry and Alberto Deltoro marshaling a Johnson defense that kept Cairo's opportunities to a minimum for much of the half. Meanwhile, the Knights attack found more and more space as the half waned, putting together several quick counters against a Syrupmakers team that pushed progressively higher in search of goals. Johnson could not apply the knockout punch, however, firing wide on a number of opportunities.

Buoyed, Cairo continued to press forward and was rewarded with a goal with 1:53 remaining, Kyle Crawford popping a loose ball into the Johnson net after the Knights failed to clear a corner kick in their own penalty area.

The strike made for an interesting final minute, but Johnson held on to confirm its semifinal berth and continue a season that has already seen the Knights clinch their highest win total.

The Knights know they will face their toughest test yet in the next round, playing host to a Southeast Whtifield team that has played in more than its share of postseason contests.

"It's going to be tough. There will be a lot of energy, a lot of fast-paced soccer," Shirley said. "They're a very technical team and love to take it to you. It will be our toughest game of the season, outside of Gainesville."
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