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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.

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