DAWSONVILLE — The East Hall boys soccer team may not finish as Region 7-AAA champions this season.
But the Vikings played like worthy title winners on Tuesday, in the process serving notice that last year's Class AAA runners-up may be hitting stride at just the right time.
Fifth-ranked East Hall stormed past second-ranked Dawson County 4-1 in Dawsonville, denying the Tigers the 7-AAA crown outright while keeping the Vikings' own region hopes alive -- even if those hopes now lie in the hands of North Hall.
If the Trojans can knock off third-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian on Thursday in Gainesville, it will cement East Hall as 7-AAA champs. A GAC win over North Hall would drop East Hall into second place -- but judging from Tuesday night's performance, the Vikings would be a two that few one seeds would relish facing.
"It feels pretty good right now; we've had games where we haven't played well this season, but tonight we really came out and performed," East Hall coach Chris Horton said. "We have not been 100 percent healthy all season, and we're still not. But we really adjusted tonight, and we showed heart and desire."
The Vikings (13-4, 5-1 Region 7-AAA) weathered an early Dawson County onslaught before pouncing with a free kick goal from Carlos Castrejon for a 1-0 halftime lead. The strike opened up more scoring opportunities in the second half and Castrejon and teammate Sergio Turcios thrived, each finishing with two goals as the East Hall pulled away for the victory.
The outcome handed the Tigers (10-1-4, 4-1) their first defeat of the campaign and netted a three-way tie for first place in 7-AAA between East Hall, Dawson and GAC -- a tie that would be decided by goals allowed in games between the three foes. The 4-1 scoreline takes the Tigers out of contention, and pits East Hall and GAC head-to-head, a game the Spartans won 1-0.
Early on, it appeared that Dawson County was headed for an outright region crown, as the Tigers attack provided plenty of "nearly" moments -- junior forward Dennis Pyetsukh proving particularly hard to handle for the Vikings defense. Pyetsukh raced on to a long through pass just two minutes after kickoff and forced a sliding save from East Hall goalkeeper Oscar Rosas, who charged out to smother Pyetsukh's shot.
Moments later Nathan Blythe beat Rosas but could not keep his header on target, rising to meet a long throw-in and angling a shot just inches over the crossbar. Blythe also scuffed a point-blank shot with 29 minutes left in the half, as the Vikings scrambled to clear a Tigers corner kick that settled just in front of the junior midfielder. But his rolled shot angled wide to let East Hall off the hook.
Instead of panicking, however, the Vikings regrouped from the early assault and began to play their way into the contest. Turcios, Castrejon and Brandon Callahan took turns probing the Dawson County defense, using their speed to ease the pressure on the East Hall backline, led by dynamic sweeper Giezi Barrientos.
Dawson County defended in packs, but the quicker Vikings began to create issues, including earning a number of free kicks -- two of which proved crucial.
Patrick Moody was cautioned for a foul on Carlos Pulido 35 yards from goal, allowing Castrejon to launch the ball toward the back post, eluding Dillon Tierney and nestling into the upper corner of the goal for a 1-0 Vikings lead with 8:23 left in the first half.
"That free kick was a game-changer; we had people in positions to get a shot even if it had not been on frame or if the keeper had touched it back out," Horton said. "We've worked on that a lot in practice and it came off tonight."
It was just the first instance of set piece magic for East Hall, however, and the Vikings doubled their advantage courtesy another free kick in the second half.
This time it was Turcios pulling the trigger.
The Vikings standout ripped a 25-yard shot toward the Dawson County goal, ricocheting off the outstretched leg of defender Tim Moody and confounding Tierney for a 2-0 lead with 27:18 left in the contest.
The Tigers, already pressing forward in search of the equalizer, threw their all into the attack when facing a two-goal deficit. And East Hall took advantage, with Turcios and Castrejon operating in far more space than they enjoyed in the first half. Tierney had to be alert to snuff out shots from each, including a 15-yard drive from Turcios after Castrejon played his teammate in one-on-one.
Yet the East Hall defense also proved alert, especially Eduardo Mata. The substitute bailed out Rosas after the Vikings keeper charged out to punch Moody's driven free kick -- only to watch it sail over his head. Mata prevented a sure goal, however, his acrobatic bicycle kick clearing the ball off the line with 25 minutes remaining.
Rosas also came up big in the waning moments, leaping to claw out a goal-bound header from Blythe with 13 minutes remaining.
The Vikings made the most of the save, and Turcios scored his second of the night with 11:21 to play, charging down the right flank before cutting inside and burying an 18-yard shot into the right corner for a 3-0 advantage.
Dawson County refused to yield, however, and Pyetsukh -- who spent much of the second half a more isolated figure in attack -- pounced with 9:30 remaining, sprinting on to a through ball and beating Rosas one-on-one to make it 3-1.
Less than one minute later, however, Castrejon restored the Vikings' three-goal advantage, ripping his own shot that just eluded the outstretched finger-tips of Tierney -- who watched as the ball trickled out of his grasp and into the net for a 4-1 East Hall lead.
"Tonight our midfield won the game for us," Horton said. "The defense and goalkeeper played well, but it was our midfield that really controlled the game and took it to them."
Dawson County faces one more region contest and will look to bounce back at Union County on Thursday.
East Hall, meanwhile, has completed its region schedule and will travel to Class AAAA No. 10 Northwest Whitfield on Friday -- but don't be surprised to see plenty of Vikings turn up at the Brickyard on Thursday, cheering for their cross-county rivals.