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Thursday August 16th, 2018 10:01PM

Playoff soccer: Chestatee taking historic run in stride as it heads to semifinals

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor

GAINESVILLE — Michael Herrin never really experienced a "Eureka!" moment during the regular season -- a match, half or goal that screamed history.

But others certainly did.

"Our girls team stuck around to watch our game against Blessed Trinity, and the next day coach (Ryan Hogue) came by and said, 'You've got something special there. You could really go on to play for something big,' " Herrin said after his team claimed its biggest Region 7-4A scalp of the season, 2-1 on March 9 over the perennial state power Titans. "I'm looking at tape and seeing all these mistakes. But when he said that I started realizing it.

"This year is a special year."

Indeed, Chestatee has turned hope -- returning all 11 starters from last season's Class 4A Sweet 16 team -- into history, reaching the program's first ever semifinal after winning in its first ever quarterfinal appearance on Saturday over Woodward Academy.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Upson-Lee High in Thomaston, the War Eagles (18-2) will battle to reach Saturday's state championship contest and continue the magic of 2018. They are one of four area teams -- including the Flowery Branch girls, Gainesville boys, and Johnson boys (NOTE: Scroll down for a complete schedule) -- to compete in the Final Four, gunning for a spot in this weekend's championship schedule.

"The only thing I really wanted to do as a head coach this season was to make it back to state and be a one or a two seed -- we were the three seed last year -- so just to improve," Herrin said. "And now we're being mentioned in the same breath as Gainesville and Johnson and all the tradition that they have [the Red Elephants are a two-time state champion, while Johnson has played in multiple title games]. We've exceeded all expectations."

Not that Chestatee is any slouch of a program -- the War Eagles have reached the state playoffs in 11 of their 16 seasons of existence.

"It just seemed like every time we got into the second round in years past something crazy would happen," said Herrin, who led Westover to the state semifinals just prior to initiating the War Eagle program. 

This season, second-ranked Chestatee avoided even the hint of insanity via a mixture of talent, maturity, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of unity the likes of which Herrin has not seen in his 16 seasons with the War Eagles.

"This is the closest to a group of brothers I've ever seen," Herrin said. "They all support each other. They're not afraid to call each other out, but they don't get down on each other."

It has helped imbue a sense of resilience in Chestatee.

"They never quit fighting, and they're a humble, hard-working group of guys anyway," Herrin said. "What's the old saying -- act like you've been there before. They're doing that."

Except that this is brand new territory for the War Eagles. 

"Don't get me wrong, they're loving the attention they're getting -- but they're able to keep it in perspective and stay focused," Herrin said. "They're so focused that a lot of our seniors didn't even realize they played their last ever home game on Saturday."

With senior starters like Austin Manzo (leading scorer and assist maker, midfield), Juval Duran (midfield/forward), Carlos Duarte (defender), Mateus Jennings (midfield), and Steven Martinez (goalkeeper) and more that rotate regularly, including Alex Salazar (forward), Elias Martinez (forward), Carlos Morales (defender), Kevin Perez (midfield) and Moises Barcenas (defender), the War Eagles offer opponents a unit that has seen just about everything and can adjust on the fly. Chestatee did just that in the quarterfinal, making a tactical switch to three forwards that enabled Chestatee to dominate much of the second half by pressuring the visitors' defense and taking the pressure off their own defense.

"They've listened to the coaching staff, and they've asked questions," Herrin said. "I'd never had 11 starters back from a team in program history. And they're confident -- not cocky."

The War Eagles continue to learn as well, absorbing plenty of wisdom from their lone region loss -- 1-0 to Marist on March 20 after creating a glut of early chances but failing to take the lead. They also took lessons from Saturday's quarterfinal.

"Woodward's corner kicks presented a problem for us, and we expect everyone to try and exploit that on us -- we're one of the shortest teams around," Herrin said. "We won that game, but there's a lot of things we have to do better. Upson-Lee will be very similar to Woodward, Marist and Blessed Trinity; they have some big, pacey guys and will be very direct. But the guys are ready.

"We have to play focused and be persistent, and we've done that -- we've only had two bad games all season. These guys want to play for a title."

STATE SOCCER SEMIFINAL SCHEDULE
Tuesday, May 8
CLASS 6A
Gainesville boys at Cambridge, 8 p.m.

CLASS 5A
Flowery Branch girls at McIntosh, 6 p.m.
Johnson boys at Starr's Mill, 7:30 p.m.

CLASS 4A
Chestatee boys at Upson-Lee, 6:30 p.m.

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