OAKWOOD — So much for talk of a rebuilding effort for the Johnson boys soccer team.
On the strength of their biggest rivalry matches -- and their first region test of the campaign -- the Knights are already reloaded.
Johnson flashed its quality once again on Friday, taking out Buford 2-0 in its Region 8-AAAAA opener in Oakwood,
The fourth-ranked Knights (7-1, 1-0 Region 8-AAAAA) scored once in each half while controlling large swathes of play -- Felix Velasquez and Innis Vierra providing the razor-edged points to Johnson's attack, while its rock-solid defense kept the ninth-ranked Wolves (6-4-1, 2-1) at bay.
"First it starts with defense for us. Each game our defense gels a little more and that's huge," said Johnson coach Brian Shirley, whose Knights have allowed just three goals in eight games -- no more than one in any single game -- and produced five shutouts. "We feel pretty good about how our defense is playing and the depth we have defensively."
Meanwhile, a multi-faceted attack is enusring that defensive work is more than rewarded -- and it was again on Friday, as Velasquez scored in the first half and Vierra in the second.
Velasquez pounced with 22 minutes left in the first half, reacting first to a rebound off a saved shot from Marco Vazquez to make it 1-0.
Vierra put the contest away with 16:47 remaining in the second half, scoring off an inch-perfect cross from Michael Arcia.
"Up front we have four guys that can get the job done. Felix Valesquez has two starts this week and two goals. Innis Viera, a freshman, scores the winner against Gainesville and then the one to seal it tonight versus Buford," Shirley said. "In midfield you have Rigo Campa and Cole Bowen playing phenomenal, finding better chemistry each time out. And then we went four deep tonight on the wing.
"Any time you come out and have showing like we did tonight in your first region game that's huge. We came out locked in from minute one, on top of it being Buford and a remtch of the semifinal. But we were able to put that aside and get it done."
Cooper Bowen did make three saves in the Knights goal, but Johnson's defense largely kept things in check against a Buford attack that has tested itself against a brutal schedule.
"It was a fairly even battle in mdifield, but we were clicking pretty good, our forwards and midfielders combining well," Shirley said. "The first 10 minuets of the second half they came after us pretty good, but we settled down again after that and kept control. But the last six-seven minutes they threw numbers at us, and we had to hold on a bit."
Despite graduating plenty of talent from last year's state runner-up, Johnson continues to push forward -- its only loss coming at Class AAAAA No. 1 McIntosh, 1-0 -- and is already showing the kind of ability that made last season an impressive campaign.
"We started out with some question marks about some things, and it seems like every week we get some of those questions answered," Shirley said. "We're starting to click and find a rhythm. But we don't want to be playing our best soccer in March, we want to be playing our best soccer in May. And we want to be constantly getting better each time out.
"This is not the 2016 team, the 2015 team or 2014 team. This is 2017. They have to write their own story and set their own bar. So far they're doing a really good job setting that bar."
Johnson faces another key region showdown on Tuesday against Flowery Branch in Oakwood.
Buford will look to bounce back next Friday (March 24) at Clarke Central.
BUFORD GIRLS 3,
The Lady Wolves (9-1-1, 3-0 Region 8-AAAAA) pulled away via goals from Morgan Smith, Cameron Hall and Annie Mayo.
Smith scored off an assist from Kristen Edmond in the first half.
Hall scored off a penalty kick.
Mayo. rounded out the scoring, heading in a corner kick from Smith.
Buford goalkeeper Maggie Leland recorded five shots against with two saves.