Wednesday September 20th, 2017 9:18PM

Soccer: Knights amped for historic title shot against familiar foe

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
-- 2:30 p.m., Johnson vs. Dalton at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw State
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KENNESAW -- For more than a year, the Johnson boys soccer team has had one singular focus and dream -- Saturday that desire becomes reality.

The circumstances read almost like a movie script.

After seasons of falling in the early rounds of the state playoffs, the Knights have broken through to become the school's first-ever state championship challenger -- and, as a bonus, they get to face down the program that ended their season in each of the last two campaigns.

"It's been a whirlwind season," said Johnson coach Brian Shirley, whose team will face Dalton for the Class AAAA title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Kennesaw State's Fifth Third Bank Stadium.

"It doesn't really feel real yet, but I'm sure on Friday night, when they're trying to fall asleep they'll start feeling it."

It's only what you would expect for a group that has spent months working toward one 80-minute opportunity.

"They've thought about this ever since the bus ride home last year (after a 2-1 loss to eventual state champs Dalton in the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs)," Shirley said.

Indeed, Johnson's players did their best to hone their skills together, playing in as many summer tournaments and amateur leagues as possible -- which only improved the unity of a group that has largely grown up on the same pitch.

"The seniors especially all grew up playing together," Knights senior midfielder Israel Avila said. "But we made sure we kept playing together as much as possible this summer and fall."

That unity combined with natural skill to help Johnson through to its -- and the school's -- first ever title shot. And it is an opportunity the Knights (21-1) hope to make the most of.

"We expected to be here; I'm not sure how many people outside of the program expected it, but we believe, and that's all that matters," Shirley said.

Johnson will need that confidence if it is to dethrone the defending champs -- who bring a 44-game unbeaten streak into the contest.

"They're talented all over the field," Avila said. "We have an idea of what they're like after playing them, but they know us too. We're going to have to put everything out there."

The Catamounts (21-0-1) feature a veteran defense that has yielded just 12 goals all season, led by senior sweeper Chava Rodriguez, along with fellow seniors Edgar Hernandez and Jose Gardea and goalkeeper Samuel Fraire.

"Our defense has been huge and really allowed us to transition our offense early in the season," Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. "We graduated a great goal-scorer last season (Ramiro Huitanda, who set school records for scoring in a career and in a season), but we've found a lot of people who can score this season."

Indeed, the Catamounts enter the championship game with 140 goals to their name this campaign -- that's just over 6 per game -- including 29 in four playoff wins.

Javier Rodriguez is the team's leading scorer, but many of those strikes have come thanks to the midfield duo of Eder Mora and Kobe Perez -- two juniors that can control the pace of the play and break up attacks as well as start them.

"That's the core of their team," Shirley said. "Mora is big, smart and really can dominate other midfielders, while (Perez) is a real playmaker."

Yet Johnson's defense -- led by senior sweeper Alberto Deltoro, stopper Isaac Henry, backs Edgar Torres and Bryant Anaya, and goalkeeper Ivan Salcido -- has also proven stubborn this season, yielding just 15 goals in 21 games and not more than one in a single contest since March 11.

And, like Dalton, the Knights' midfield mixes speed, incisiveness and bite, setting up what should be an intense battle for possession on Saturday.

"I think we match up pretty similarly," said Cheaves, whose team dominated every other playoff foe last year save for a 2-1 battle with the Knights. "We both have fast players and counter quickly and also keep pressure on the defense."

Johnson's attacking trio of Fabian Abraca, Barut Perez and Luis Deltoro have terrorized opposing defenses this season, supplying many of Johnson's 113 goals (just over 5 goals per game) -- though every Knight knows that space and scoring opportunities will come at a premium this time around.

"Before you get the ball, you better know where you're going with it, because you're not going to have any time," Avila said.

"It's going to be fast and physical," Henry added. "We're going to have to play to the best of our ability. And we still haven't put together our best game yet. Hopefully we can do that Saturday."

Beyond the skill, Dalton also has the added dimension of the long throw-in, which can turn any ball knocked out of bounds within 35-yards of the Johnson penalty area into a de facto corner kick -- though the Knights handled the same issue very well in Tuesday's semifinal win over Southeast Whitfield, keeping the Raiders scoreless.

"This year they're a different team than what we played last year, and we're a different team too, but last year we were able to disrupt them and get them out of their comfort zone," Shirley said. "They're the obvious favorite to win again this year, and I feel like, really, the pressure is all on them."

The Knights hope to ride their positive momentum -- including plenty of well wishes from fellow students and teachers -- to a historic championship.

"It's an honor to be playing for a title," Henry said. "I play on other sports teams, and it would be great to put Johnson on the map."

Keep playing like they have so far this season, and there's little doubt that Johnson will become a very big spot on the state soccer map.
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