PEACHTREE CITY — The Johnson boys soccer team has spent almost two full seasons chasing the one that got away.
Thanks to Tuesday, they now have a chance for closure.
The Knights pulled away from Starr's Mill for a 4-1 win in the Class 5A state semifinals in Peachtree City, scoring three second half goals to set up their second state title shot in three seasons.
Johnson fell to St. Pius in the 2016 finals -- and judging by their semifinal performance, they will head to Macon on Friday as a team very much on a mission.
"From day one our goal has been to get back to this game, and now we have the opportunity to get back there and finish it off," Knights coach Brian Shirley said. "These guys have worked their butts off, have committed so much time and energy to getting here. I'm so happy they have the opportunity."
Johnson battled throughout the first half and took a 1-0 lead midway through on a Michael Arcia strike, but the Panthers ensured that it was far from one-way traffic, using speed on the flanks to keep the Knights (17-2-2) on their toes. Nevertheless, Johnson entered the second half knowing they were 40 minutes away from a shot at redemption.
Starr's Mill refused to go quietly, however, striking the Knights' upright with 31 minutes remaining.
But Johnso was not to be denied, and Rigo Campa, Marco Vazquez and then Arcia once more combined to ensure there would be nail-biting finish.
Campa produced an impressive solo effort with 16:01 to play, cutting in from the left flank and ripping a 15-yard shot past the Starr's Mill keeper at his near post for 2-1. And five minutes later Vazquez pounced, leaping to head home the rebound after a Cole Bowen free kick struck the Panthers' crossbar and dropped for the charging senior.
Starr's Mill finally responded with 5:33 to play, scoring when a corner kick produced a goal-mouth scramble -- the first goal the Knights have yielded this postseason. But Arcia fired right back, restoring a three-goal lead with a cut-in and 18-yard screamer to send Johnson toward Macon with authority.
"We're going to enjoy this tonight and then find out who we play and start working tomorrow (Wednesday)," said Shirley, whose team will head to Mercer's Five Star Stadium in Macon for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff for the Class 5A boys final.
"It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of heart -- that's the X-factor in championship games. We've just got to be disciplined and grind it out."