Wednesday May 25th, 2016 9:23AM

Soccer: West Hall and North Hall ready for semifinal tests, title rematch

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor

Southeast Whitfield at Johnson, 6:30 p.m.

Class AAA
West Hall at Oconee County, 7:30 p.m.
North Hall at St. Pius, 7:30 p.m.
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The North Hall and West Hall soccer teams entered the postseason safe in the knowledge of at least one thing: They were ready.

A brutal regular season schedule, including a Region 7-AAA slate that made up half of the Class AAA top 10, imbued the Spartans and Trojans with the confidence that they could handle contests against any team -- contests like Woodward Academy in College Park or Islands High after a five-hour road-trip.

And it is why both teams feel they have a shot at playing each other one more time this season -- in the Class AAA title game.

"The guys are ready; they know they can go all the way, and they're ready to make history," North Hall coach Jonathan Lillie said. "Our region is one of the best in the state, and they knew that by getting into the playoffs from that region that they could beat anyone in the state on any given night."

Since the playoffs started both teams have been playing out those given nights with regularity, slicing through the first three rounds to reach the state semifinals -- where another round of tests await -- West Hall traveling to Oconee County and North Hall to St. Pius.

"The next game will be a different level from what we've faced, at least in two of our playoff games," Spartans coach Tim Gale said. "Oconee County will be the best team we've played so far."

That's high praise indeed considering West Hall (13-5-2) has already claimed No. 1-ranked Woodward's scalp on its own field in the second round. But after "feeling their way" through much of the regular season, the Spartans have found their stride and are hoping to carry that through to Saturday's title tilt.

Funny enough that discovery came in a loss -- a 1-0 defeat to eventual 7-AAA champ Dawson County on April 15.

"That game gave us a lot of insight as to who we were as a team," Gale said. "Even though we lost we played really well and created a lot of possession against an excellent team."

West Hall hasn't looked back since, winning four straight -- including a penalty shootout victory over North Hall (13-5-2).

The Trojans also took a lot of lessons in some of their setbacks this season, including perhaps the most imprortant -- a 4-1 defeat to White County back on Feb. 25, which came just a week after hammering the Warriors 10-0 in a tournament game.

"That game was a defining moment for us," Lillie said. "It was a game in which they learned what they had to do for each other and after that I saw them all start to play for each other. We'd had some issues early in the season, but we got rid of them after that game."

North Hall has lost just two games since -- to Dawson County and the penalty shootout to the Spartans -- and, perhaps most impressively, the Trojans have shown the abiliyty to win in multiple fashions. For example look no further than the postseason, where North Hall knocked out North Murray with an overtime goal for a 1-0 win in round one. From there it's been all about offense for North Hall, which put up nine goals combined in second round defeats of North Oconee and Islands.

"Our style is creative, but we have several methods of attack," Lillie said. "We have depth and you can't just try and mark one guy out of the game."

Even with a record-breaking goal-scorer in Junior Avalos -- who now owns the school mark with 45 career strikes -- the Trojans have numerous threats, with Enrique Casterjon, Jake Stephens, Hunter Carter and Jairo Barriento each scoring in the playoffs.

"Offensively we're just on fire right now, and everything's clicking," Lillie said. "If Junior sits it doesn't effect their mentality at all. We've been fortunate with injury, but everyone is stepping up right now. And the overall character of this team has been fantastic."

West Hall too has raised its overall level of play -- outscoring three playoff foes by a combined 13-1.

"We're finding the back of the net better now than we have all season, and really everyone is playing well," Gale said. "We have role players stepping up, guys coming in off the bench and providing key minutes. It's all been coming together."

There has also been plenty of leadership and skill from Eduardo Magana, Jordan Moreno and Omar Castillo.

"Eduardo is solid in the back, and he distributes the ball well and starts the attack; then Jordan covers so much ground and does so much work for us; and Omar has massive skill and, while he can score, he is also a great distributor and playmaker for us," Gale said.

And like everyone associated with West Hall, the trio will hope to get a little payback on Tuesday in Watkinsville after watching Oconee County knock the Spartans out of last year's Class AAA postseason in the second round.

"That game was a disappointment for West Hall, and they do remember it," Gale said. "They didn't come through in that game, and I think they think of this as a chance for redemption. It's not that they want to beat Oconee so much as they just want to show they can come through after last year."

That won't come easy against a Warriors team that reached last year's semifinal round.

"They're fast, physical, skilled, and they have a great goalkeeper," Gale said of Oconee County. "It's going to take our best game."

North Hall too knows it must be at its best on Tuesday at St. Pius' Maloof Stadium.

"There's no doubt they're a very, very good team," Lillie said. "But we're a good team too, and I think we're ready."

Both the Spartans and Trojans have been ready for each step so far -- and both would love the opportunity for a rematch from their razor-thin regular season contest.

"Region 7 is a pretty tight-knit group; we fight each other during the season, but I think we stick up for each other too," Gale said. "I'm rooting for them (North Hall). It would be so exciting if we both won and be so good for northeast Georgia soccer."

Count both North Hall and West Hall as ready again.
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