OAKWOOD -- The Johnson boys soccer team thought it saw an advantage it could exploit over Southeast Whitfield.
On Tuesday, Barut Perez turned that thought into a winning reality.
Perez soared above two Southeast Whitfield defenders to head home a free kick late in the first half of the two teams' Class AAAA semifinal in Oakwood -- a goal the Knights defense made stand, as Johnson secured a 1-0 victory and its first ever state championship appearance.
"We had them scouted and had seen they didn't always defend set pieces very well, so we though we had an advantage there," Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. "And we have executed well on set pieces all season."
The victory set up a tantalizing championship showdown at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Kennesaw State University, where the Knights will face defending Class AAAA champ Dalton. It was also the sole success on the day for three area soccer programs, as West Hall and North Hall each lost in Class AAA semifinal matches.
The Knights (21-1) needed plenty of determination to avoid a similar fate, and thanks to defenders like Alberto Deltoro, it was never a question of heart for Johnson.
"He had it locked down back there," Shirley said of his sweeper. "That had to be one of our top defensive games of the season."
The Knights needed their best in the back, especially over the opening 25 minutes, as Southeast Whitfield used an aggressive and direct attack, mixed with corner kicks and long throw-ins to keep Johnson under pressure.
Once Perez struck, however, the Knights began to take control, eventually stifling the Raiders in the second half and easing toward the title tilt.
"We didn't play well for the first 20 minutes; then we got a rhythm and really took it to them," Shirley said. "We definitely should be satisfied; we still didn't play a full 80 minutes, but we have another shot to do that."
The game commenced with a physical, back-and-forth battle in midfield, as the two teams looked for traction.
Southeast Whitfield found it first, as Artemio Lopez forced an early save from Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido -- who was alert to snag a bouncing free kick that could have caused trouble but for Salcido's safe hands five minutes into the game.
Six minutes later, Raiders' midfielder Victor Garcia lined up a 30-yard shot that clipped off the Johnson crossbar before bouncing to safety.
No sooner had Southeast Whitfield begun to take control of the game, than the Knights pulled off a lightning strike counter that ended in a 1-0 lead.
Latching on to a loose ball, Perez charged down the left wing and drew a foul just outside the Raiders penalty area -- setting the stage for Perez's real heroics, as the senior rose to power home a perfectly curled free kick from Fabian Abarca.
"We always practice that, going to the back post," Perez said. "I was kind of surprised I was able to get enough space back there, but I knew I had to give it my all. You can't be afraid of headers, and you have to go in with everything you've got to win 50-50 balls. I guess I won that one."
The strike, which ricocheted off Raiders goalkeeper Ivan Ortiz, yielded a 1-0 lead with 13:27 remaining and turned the tide of the contest -- Johnson growing in confidence and gaining more and more offensive possession in the minutes following.
Not that it was one-way traffic, however, and Southeast Whitfield so nearly found an equalizer before the interval.
Lopez met a Raiders corner kick with a glancing header that appeared goal-bound, only to watch Israel Avila intercept -- though his clearance attempt bounced off the underside of the Knights crossbar before Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido gratefully cradled the ball in his arms with just a minutes left in the half.
The escape allowed the Knights to continue their surge into the second half, where they kept the Raiders from building sustained momentum. In fact, the only real scoring opportunities of the second 40 minutes came from Johnson, as Abarca forced a reflex save from Ortiz before Jeffrey Cabrales rolled a 15-yard shot just inches wide of the Southeast Whitfield goalpost.
"We need to work on our finishing, but it was a great effort from everyone today," Shirley said.
Johnson will look for one more winning effort on Saturday, facing a Dalton team that knocked the Knights from the postseason in a 2-1 defeat in last year's second round -- the only close contest the Catamounts faced in the 2013 playoffs.
"It's going to take everything; everyone giving their heart (to win on Saturday)," said Perez, who added that effort shouldn't be a question for a team full of veterans that have spent years on the pitch together. "The whole team is full of seniors, and we've been playing together since middle school and even before that."