MACON — All season, the Gainesville boys soccer team has worn opponents down with rock-solid defending and lightning-quick counter-attacks.
On Saturday in the Class AAAAAA championship game, the Red Elephants ran into a Chattahoochee team that ran a similar blue-print to perfection.
The Cougars pounced for an early lead and then held a determined Gainesville attack at bay the rest of the way before clinching the state crown with a late strike in a 2-0 victory at Mercer's Five Star Stadium in Macon.
"We didn't start the game too well, and the first half I didn't think we played our game," Red Elephants coach Elie Viviant said. "But in the second half we pushed and pushed and really played pretty well, but we had to take risks to get back into it, and they took advantage."
Ryan Kapper sealed the contest with an impressive run and strike with 17:15 to play -- and a 2-0 advantage for a team with a goalkeeper like Jack Corriga was more than enough. The Cougars shot-stopper controlled his penalty area with authority and smothered everything Gainesville threw at him -- and a hard-working defense also ensured that most of the shots were long-range efforts.
"We didn't get in the box and test them; both of their goals were in the box, and it's tough to score goals shooting from long range," Viviant said. "I wish we had gotten one goal to stay in it. They were good tonight; they deserved to win it. But I hope we also showed we belonged here -- and we'll be back. We are very young."
The Red Elephants (19-3) graduate just two senior starters and will return the bulk of a squad that made its first state championship game appearance since 2012.
"All of them playing left everything on the field tonight," Viviant said. "We'll try it again next year."
Chattahoochee used its speed in attack to put Gainesville on its heels from the opening kickoff, as Jackson Siegel, Alex Field and Drew Capatano took turns running full bore at the heart of the Red Elephants defense.
Their work set up the opening strike, as Gainesville ceded a corner kick under pressure that Timothy Yoon lofted for Nicholas Troyer. The senior leaped above two defenders and glanced a confident header into the far corner of the Red Elephants' net for a 1-0 lead with 30:41 left in the first half.
The strike and speed of the Cougars (19-2-1) attack combined to stun Gainesville momentarily, but the Red Elephants refused to yield and got to grips with the contest as the half wore on -- though they were so nearly two goals behind by the time they did so. Another Chattahoochee corner kick caromed perfectly for Siegel, who centered for Mikey Janowitz. But Cristian Jaimes blocked his shot on the goal line and Erick Serrato completed the clearance to keep Gainesville in the contest.
Moments later, the Red Elephants came inches from the equalizer, as Alejandro Covarrubias headed a corner kick toward the back post, only to see Corriga stretch to deny the shot.
The junior keeper came to Chattahoochee's resuce again seven minutes from halftime, again denying Covarrubias after a perfectly-weighted pass from Pedro Santos set the sophomore through on goal. But Corriga deflected the 10-yard blast and Santos could only push his rebound effort wide.
At that point the game was developing an end-to-end rhythm, and it continued into the second half, with Chattahoochee looking to its speed through the middle and Gainesville replying through runs from Cristian Rodriguez, Darian Alarcon, Covarrubias and Santos.
The Red Elephants appeared in the ascendancy, keeping Chattahoochee under pressure and Corriga alert -- but the Cougars speed was still a key factor, and it eventually proved Gainesville's undoing. Immediately following an injury to Red Elephants right back Serratos, Chattahoochee's Kapper took possession and surged down the left wing, dribbling past two defenders before slotting a 10-yard shot into goal for a 2-0 advantage with 17:15 left to play.
Gainesville kept fighting, forcing Corriga into action twice more, including with 5 minutes remaining when he pushed Jovanei Santos' 20-yard blast over his own crossbar. It was more than enough to send Chattahoochee to its second state title and first since 2011.
"I wish we had controlled the middle a bit better," Viviant said. "They were very good, and we knew (Kapper) was phenomenal in midfield -- him and (Siegel)."