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Thursday October 18th, 2018 8:14AM

Playoff soccer: Chestatee too big for quarterfinals, heads to first ever semifinal

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor

GAINESVILLE — Prior to Saturday's historic kickoff, Chestatee boys soccer coach Michael Herrin asked his team one question:

"We said, are you going to be bigger than the game, or is the game going to be bigger than you," Herrin said. 

The War Eagles showed that not even their first ever state quarterfinal -- against an Atlanta powerhouse -- could dwarf their playoff hopes, as second-ranked Chestatee knocked off No. 4 Woodward Academy 2-1 in the Class 4A tournament in Gainesville.

Uriel Rocha scored in the first half, while Austin Manzo supplied a sublime finish in the second half to seal the win and maintain the War Eagles' unprecedented postseason march.

"This is a special group," Herrin said. "They rose up tonight, and I'm so proud of them. All season we've talked about potential and meeing that potential. And they just refuse to quit on each other, no matter the situation."

The second-ranked War Eagles (18-2) had plenty of opportunity to succumb to fourth-ranked Woodward (a program with four state championships in its history), especially in the first half when the visitors controlled proceedings and kept Chestatee's defense under pressure  -- despite a smash-and-grab opener from Chestatee. But a halftime adjustment and commitment to attack turned the tables and saw the home side catch fire.

"One of my assistant coaches decided that we needed to press their back line more, so we switched to a 3-4-3, and the guys bought in," Herrin said. "And when they saw that we were getting immediate pressure and taking pressure off our defense they were all about it."

Yet the difference came down to one moment of brilliance from Manzo, who left two defenders in his wake before slamming a left-footed shot into the net with just over eight minutes remaining.

"He's not afraid to take that chance," Herrin said of the right-footed Manzo. "He is a special player."

Manzo also played a role in the War Eagles dream start, as the midfielder reached the Woodward endline and cut the ball back for an onrushing Rocha, who slammed his six-yard shot into the visitors' net for a 1-0 lead just 48 seconds into the contest.

It was anything but a harbinger, however, and Woodward settled into the match almost immediately.

Jordan Culley forced a full-stretch save from Chestatee goalkeeper Steven Martinez just one minute after the opener. And Woodward kept coming, proving especially dangerous at set pieces.

The War Eagles' Logan Knotts reacted quickly to clear a Tej Munshi shot off his own goal line after a Woodward corner kick with 33 minutes remaining.

Yet Chestatee could not keep Woodward at bay on the ensuing corner, as Tejan Borchers got free to head home from 8 yards with 29:24 remaining in the half. 

The equalizer sparked Chestatee's attack back to life, however, and, after spending much of the first half defending, the War Eagles finally pressured Woodward keeper Marshall Golick with 18 minutes left in the half. Yet Golick was up to the task, corraling Juan Carlos Vanegas' 30-yard drive.

The visitors were still dangerous, however, and Martinez had to be alert to deny Jide Awujo's 18-yard shot -- Martinez adjusting almost mid-dive after the ball deflected off a War Eagles defender and keep the scoreline even at the half.

Chestatee continued its ascent after the interval, as Manzo, Rocha and Alex Salazar took the intiative, pressing forward and getting off shots with regularity.

Manzo ripped back-to-back volleys just wide of the target, and Rocha so nearly set up Salazar, sprinting into the Woodward penalty area and centering for his strike partner -- who needed a bigger shoe size to tip the ball into an open net. The Chestatee offensive flurry was only the beginning, and the game stretched end-to-end with both teams looking for quick offense via runs up the wing and long passes through the middle.

Yet it was another set play that provided the drama, as the War Eagles' Rocha rose to power a header on goal. But Golick was up to the task, leaping at full stretch to punch the ball over his own crossbar with 17 minutes remaining.

There was absolutely nothing Golick could do about Manzo's next effort, however.

Picking up a pass 30 yards from goal, Manzo slalomed past one defender, cut past another and hoisted an 18-yard shot into the far corner of the Woodward goal, leaving Golick stranded on his line for a 2-1 lead with 8:38 to play.

The strike ignited a raucous home crowd, as teammates swarmed Manzo. But there was plenty of work remaining, as Woodward kicked its attack into top gear for the final assault. Yet the War Eagles were up to the task -- even if there were some nervy moments, including Awujo's header just inches over the Chestatee crossbar after Munshi's cross.

In the end, the War Eagles were not to be denied, as they drove on toward more history.

"We had a foundation in place for this," said Herrin, whose team also set a season record for wins on the night. "These guys just keep working and will not quit."

Chestatee will travel to face Upson-Lee in teh Class 4A semifinals on Tuesday in Thomaston, time to be announced.

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