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Sunday May 29th, 2016 1:56AM

Soccer: Knights semifinal run born out of 2013 playoff defeat

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
OAKWOOD -- The Johnson boys soccer team's run at history all began on a long bus-ride home during the 2013 postseason.

"We were on our way back from last year's second round loss at Dalton, and a lot of the guys were like, let's get ready for next year," Knights coach Brian Shirley said, referencing a 2-1 second round defeat at eventual state champ Dalton. "We were disappointed; we had had a good season and an unfortunate draw in getting Dalton, but the guys knew we could be better, and they wanted to get back to work."

Just hours removed from the program's first state semifinal berth since 2005, it's obvious that work has paid off.

"The guys worked over the summer, and we've worked through the season," Shirley said. "And we expected to be here, honestly. I don't think anyone inside the program is caught off-guard by this."

If the Knights (20-1), who have already set a school record for wins in a season, can maintain the form that has seen them through to the final four, Johnson will be staring at its first ever title game.

The Knights know they will have to earn that appearance, however, as Southeast Whitfield is a program looking for its own redux on 2013 after reaching the title game before falling to Region 7-AAAA rival Dalton.

The Raiders (14-5-2) will be the most talented and tested team Johnson has faced so far this postseason -- kickoff at 6:30 p.m. at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium -- and Shirley says his squad must not get too anxious if they fail to break down the Southeast Whitfield defense in the early going.

"Their attack is solid, but I think their back four is their strength," Shirley said. "They've got a four-year starter at sweeper, and the goalkeeper is a veteran that really leads from the back. It will be a matter of moving the ball around and finding space. We've done a good job of that against organized defenses this season, but we've got to stay patient (today)."

Featuring a incisive trident in attack made up of Barut Perez, Israel Deltoro and Fabian Abarca, Johnson has kept most opponents under consistent pressure this postseason -- and much of the regular season. Yet Johnson's threats go beyond those three -- as Bryant Anaya demonstrated in the Knights' second round win over Carrollton, scoring in overtime to seal a 2-1 victory.

"We've had a lot of guys step up this season," Shirley said. "At the start of the year we had Barut Perez at left back, but then Edgar Torres stepped up to play there, allowing us to move Barut up into attack. Then you have guys like Isaac Henry, who normally is an attacking player, stepping into a defensive role and playing it well.

"We had some questions coming into the season, but guys have answered those questions."

Tonight, that same group hopes to answer questions Johnson has never answered as a program, and Shirley is not concerned that the weight of the moment will prove too much.

"They know the opposition that lies ahead -- it's just a matter of execution," Shirley said. "The seniors on this team are approaching this from a very different position from the young guys on the team, but everybody is adding something to the team dynamic.

"The seniors know this will be their last game at home, regardless of what happens, and so everyone's excited to try and end the season at home on top."

Do that and it would pave the way for another bus ride -- possibly to face Dalton, which is in the other semifinal -- in the state championship game on Saturday at Kennesaw State University.
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