OAKWOOD — Marco Vazquez and the rest of the seniors on the Johnson boys soccer team had not known anything but region titles in their time for the Knights.
After a scoreless half against unbeaten Clarke Central Thursday, the Knights’ streak of four consecutive crowns looked in danger.
But Vazquez and fellow senior Rico Campa made sure the streak stayed in tact for at least one more season as the pair scored six minutes apart in the second half to break the game open en route to a 3-1 victory at The Dungeon.
Vazquez finished with a pair of goals, including a back-breaking penalty kick with just 4:46 left, while Campa had a goal and an assist. The victory sealed the Knights’ (10-2-2, 5-0-0 Region 8-5A) fifth straight region championship, the second straight in 8-5A, and it also was coach Brian Shirley’s 150th win as coach.
“This was a special win because few senior classes get to go their entire careers winning four region titles and we’ve had two straight (senior) classes do that,” Shirley said. “Hopefully this group will build on this. I feel like there is still a lot of room for improvement with this team. We still haven’t played a complete match this year.”
Both teams had played a sloppy first half in a defensive slugfest. Clarke Central came in having allowed just nine goals all season and no more than two in any single match. Johnson had allowed just 15 goals against one of the toughest schedules in the state.
In the first half the Knights turned four Gladiators turnovers in their own box into scoring chances, though only two produced shots. Johnson turned the ball over half-a-dozen times in the midfield but Clarke Central was only able to generate three shots. The Knights managed seven shots on goal to just the three for the Gladiators in the opening 40 minutes.
Vazquez said the talk at halftime was going back to a more aggressive approach.
“The coaches said we needed to push it more and we did,” he said. “Once we got that first one, things began to open up for us.”
Vazquez broke the scoreless draw in the 59th minute on a header off a beautiful corner cross by Campa off a corner kick. That sequence was set up by a shifty run from Michael Arcia on a quick counter off a Clarke Central turnover.
The Gladiators nearly got the equalizer three minutes later, however, but Central's Zach Quick whiffed on a cross right in front of an open Knights’ net. Moments later another Vazquez header hit the crossbar but Campa was able to gather a series of passes and pushed the lead to 2-0 with a seeing-eye, 20-yard, left-footed blast past diving Gladiators keeper Joseph Cervantes in the 65th minute.
“(On the first goal) I saw it was going to be a good ball so I backed up some to give myself some more space (for the header) and I was able to hit the net,” Vazquez said. “Rico drives us and that was just a great shot to get that in the net (for the 2-0 lead). That was huge for us.”
But Clarke Central (15-1-0, 4-1-0) did not go away. Will Skobba scored the Gladiators only goal taking advantage of a bad Knights defensive miscue in the box stealing a pass from Johnson keeper Cooper Bowen and knocking in a short 5-yard shot into an empty net with 10:47 left.
“That was the only real mistake I felt we made all night,” Shirley said. “Fortunately it didn’t cost us.”
The offenses then turned up the heat. Johnson finished with 26 shots on goal in the second half alone. Arcia hit the crossbar on a 20-yard blast with just under 7 minutes left and he hit the left upright on 25-yard blast a minute later.
After managing just three shots in the first half Clarke Central finished with seven in the second half. Cervantes keep the Gladiators within striking distance making six diving saves as part of 27 overall for the game.
But a handball call on the Gladiators with 4:46 left gave Vazquez a chance to seal another region title and he didn’t miss.
“We knew (Clarke Central) was a good team but we wanted to be the first ones to take them down this year,” he said. “It feels great to win a fourth title in a row and the seniors go out strong.”
The chances in the first half were few and far between. Johnson’s best scoring chance came in the 18th minutes when Junior Arellano sent a beautiful cross inside the box but a sliding Vazquez was unable to connect in front of a wide open goal.
Three minutes later Vazquez had another chance gathering in a pass on the right side and serpentining through three defenders into open space. But his blast from 15 yards slide just wide left past a diving Cervantes.
The Gladiators best chance came on their second corner of the half in the 36th minute that generated two shots but Bowen was able to punch the ball out.
Johnson will close out the season and region schedule next Thursday at home against Loganville.
JOHNSON GIRLS 3,
CLARKE CENTRAL 0
Jenna DeGroot scored a goal and added an assist to lead the Lady Knights to a crucial Area 8-5A victory over the Lady Gladiators.
DeGroot assisted on the first goal of the game by Itzel Rivera in the first half to give Johnson a 1-0 lead. It stayed that into the second half.
Midway through the second, Dani Malone made it 2-0 Johnson off a feed from Lyla Migliore. DeGroot made sure there would be no comeback booting in a goal of her own with just two minutes left in the match.
It was the third straight win for the Lady Knights (9-6-1, 3-2 Region 8-5A) who took over sole possession of third place in the standings. They will close out the regular season and Area schedule next Thursday at home against Loganville (2-10-2, 2-3) in what will be a battle for the No. 3 seed in upcoming state playoffs.
The Lady Gladiators (4-10-1, 2-3) fell into a fourth place tie with Loganville and will close out their region schedule on Tuesday against Buford (7-7-1, 4-1) in Athens. A Buford win would clinch a playoff spot for the Lady Knights.