mostlycloudy
Friday May 25th, 2018 2:53PM

Playoff soccer: Johnson looking to knock door down and grab first title

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor

OAKWOOD — "I just want to be on that field again -- I can't wait to get back out there."

Johnson soccer senior Josh Elizalde was speaking for himself on Thursday, but it was obvious from the nods of approval and determined faces of his teammates that it was a sentiment shared by the entire Knights locker room.

After suffering, battling, fighting, hoping and even occasionally wondering, the Johnson boys team is set for another trip to Macon and a shot at a state title on Friday when the Knights travel to Mercer's Five Star Stadium to face down McIntosh at 7:30 p.m. in the Class 5A championship.

And after recent experiences, there is a noticeable fire burning in Knights' eyes.

"That's been their goal since day one this offseason, to get back to the championship game and have a chance to finish the drill," Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. "They want it not just for themselves, but for the school and the whole community."

The Knights watched in bitter frustration as St. Pius derailed their 2016 title hopes via a 3-0 loss, in which Johnson lost its offensive talisman Fabian Abarca to a first half red card. They then suffered a shock exit in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, 2-1, to eventual semifinalist Grady.

They are moments the Knights believe only steeled their will for redemption. And with seven starters on the roster that experienced both agonies, Johnson's players vowed that 2018 would be different.

"It was heartbreaking to work so hard and not reach that goal," Knights senior Rigo Campa said.

Even through the disappointment, however, Shirley saw a determination born.

"Last year getting bounced in the first round didn't sit well with them," said Shirley, who will lead Johnson into its third championship tilt (2014, '16 and '18) on Friday. "That was the match that really lit the fire; you saw them say to themselves, 'we can't let this happen again.' And it's been a joy to see."

Indeed, the Knights have been almost untouchable in the postseason, winning four games by a combined 18-1.

"Coming into state our game has come up a lot, and that's shown," senior starter Marco Vazquez said. 

It's been obvious for much of 2018, with Johnson losing just two contests and both in penalty shootouts -- to arch-rival and Class 6A semifinalist Gainesville... and to McIntosh when the two teams met on Feb. 27 in Oakwood.

"That was a sloppy game for us, and we didn't play as a team," Campa said of a contest that saw the Knights (17-2-2) go behind 2-0 only to level the contest but fall in penalties. "We learned not to underestimate them though."

It also proved a stinging reminder that there could be no letdown in preparation or shift in focus.

"Those two games made them hungrier; they were another motivating factor," Shirley said. "Since then the guys have pretty much been on fire."

On Friday, however, the Knights plan to make it a slow burn -- to play smart, disciplined soccer and avoid any emotional outpourings.

"We've got to avoid turnovers in midfield and move the ball quicker in order to break down their defense," Vazquez said.

They must also be wary of McIntosh's direct style and the abilities of players like reigning Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Georgia Jake Donaldson. Johnson's prolific attack (99 goals - 5.8 goals per game) must also stay patient against a McIntosh defense that has yielded just 23 goals in 22 matches.

It is a challenge the Knights relish.

"The guys are just very focused and relaxed right now -- that's how we want them," Shirley said. "The way we've played this year, even when we haven't fired on all cylinders we've found ways to win. And when we have fired on all cylinders we've looked outstanding. We're confident in our ability to go down there and play our game and do it well."

With history in the balance, Johnson's players know that is a must as they gun for the school's first team state title.

"(Winning state) is all we've ever wanted," Vazquez said. "It would be a dream come true."

"It would feel so good to bring history to Johnson," Elizalde said. "The whole school -- it's like a family that's supporting us right now."

It would be the ultimate reward for a community aching for ultimate success and a program looking to join Gainesville's (1998 and 2010) and West Hall's boys (2015) as area programs to capture a crown. (NOTE: Chestatee's boys will look to do the same when they take on Northwest Whitfield at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Class 4A final in Macon.)

"Our kids live and breathe soccer; it's who they are," Shirley said. "It filters through the whole community. And the opportunity to do this for the school or community is massive. I don't think you can put it into words."

Judging the faces of the Knights on Thursday, words are not necessary.

© Copyright 2018 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Playoff soccer: Johnson looking to knock door down and grab first title
Johnson soccer senior Josh Elizalde was speaking for himself on Thursday, but it was obvious from the nods of approval and determined faces of his teammates that it was a sentiment shared by the entire Knights locker room...
7:45AM ( 13 minutes ago )
Harvick and Busch set to square off at Kansas
Kevin Harvick essentially told his fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season dominator Kyle Busch – I’ll take your three race victories and raise you one.
6:00AM ( 1 hour ago )
STATE CHAMPS: Area track and field stars shine on first day of state meets
Five area athletes brought home the gold on Thursday, as GHSA state track and field championships got under way at three different venues.
1:00AM ( 6 hours ago )
Sports
Playoff baseball: Branch's incredible playoff run continues; Falcons sweep into semis
They may have been a three seed entering the postseason, but they are starting to play like champions...
11:51PM ( 1 day ago )
(VIDEO) Playoff baseball: Buford sweeps past Ola and into 5A semifinals
Buford junior third baseman Brandon Jolliff picked just the right time Wednesday against Ola in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A playoffs to show what his coaches and fellow players already knew...
11:49PM ( 1 day ago )
(VIDEO) Playoff baseball: Jefferson-Woodward headed to Game 3 in quarterfinal series
Jefferson baseball has been here once already this postseason...
11:46PM ( 1 day ago )
High School Sports
Playoff soccer: Johnson, Chestatee boys book spots in title game
Yet again two northeast Georgia soccer teams are headed to the state championship.
8:07AM ( 1 day ago )
Playoff soccer: Chestatee advances to first-ever 4A final
The Chestatee boys soccer team continued its historic playoff run Tuesday with a 2-0 victory over Upson-Lee in the semifinals of the Class 4A playoffs...
By AccessWDUN
11:59PM ( 2 days ago )
(VIDEO) Playoff soccer: Johnson boys surge back into Class 5A championship game
The Johnson boys soccer team has spent almost two full seasons chasing the one that got away.
11:51PM ( 2 days ago )
Playoff soccer: GHS boys suffer controversial loss in semifinals
The scoreboard read "Cambridge 3, Gainesville 0." But those attending the two teams’ Class 6A boys soccer semifinal showdown of nationally-ranked teams may have walked out of Cambridge Stadium feeling unfulfilled.
11:14PM ( 2 days ago )
(VIDEO) Playoff soccer: Flowery Branch battles McIntosh toe-to-toe before falling in OT
After watching his team scratch, claw and come within a hair's breadth of history on Tuesday Anel Lilic knew there was little he could say to assuage the emotions of the Flowery Branch girls soccer team.
11:01PM ( 2 days ago )