GAINESVILLE — According to Gainesville boys soccer coaches and players, in practice, it had never worked. It had not even come close.
“We were talking right before that we wouldn’t do it because it hadn’t worked at all in practice,” Gainesville’s Armando Hernandez said. “We almost didn’t even try it.”
But when it counted most, Hernandez and teammate Jorge Vasquez executed it like seasoned pros.
The pair hooked up on a set play from just outside the Chattahoochee box as Vasquez chipped a soft pass over the Cougars defense. A charging Hernandez then one-timed it past diving keeper Holden Tracy for what would eventually be the game-winner in a thrilling 2-1 Red Elephants victory at City Park Stadium.
“I don’t know exactly what we did different but it (Jorge) chipped it perfect and I was able to get it past (the keeper). I really thought he was going to make the stop but when I saw it go in it was just crazy,” Hernandez said.
The goal came with 3:26 still left in the two teams’ Class 6A second-round showdown. The two-time defending state champion Cougars (14-3) didn’t go quietly as they pushed forward with all 10 attackers and tried to mount several counter-strikes.
Each time, however, a solid Gainesville defensive unit led by the backline of Jose Rodriguez, Alejandro Balbaneda, and Vasquez was a virtual wall. Chattahoochee, which also saw it’s 11-match playoff win streak, dating back to the 2016 season, come to an end as well. The Cougars were not able to generate a single shot on goal in the final minutes.
“Just a great effort, especially the guys in the back. They were fantastic,” Gainesville coach Eli Viviant said. “We only had 13 available to us so just a tremendous effort. We really had no choice but to go with that play because we had already used the other one we had practiced so we had to try something new. We only practiced it four times maybe and it was never close. But it worked tonight.”
The win for the Red Elephants (16-2) moves them into the quarterfinal round where they will play host to Richmond Hill, which was a 2-1 winner over Houston County.
Viviant said another key to the monumental victory was the “natural” turf at Bobby Gruhn Field.
“We got to play on grass and that was big for us,” he said. “(Chattahoochee) plays on turf and they were complaining about having to play on grass. We’ve had to play on turf and we never complain. It made a difference for us.”
Viviant, however, also made a point of stressing to his team and the media that Thursday’s victory means very little if they can’t back it up next week.
“We still have, hopefully, three games left to win if we want to win the title,” he said. “We beat the champs but that doesn’t mean we’ve won anything yet. We have to be ready next week or no one will remember this one.”
The game was basically what most fans expected. Both teams attacked and countered while the defenses bent but never fully broke.
Chattahoochee opened the match going on the attack early with two scoring chances, including a corner, in the opening three minutes. Daniel Dobrinski just missed left on a 20-yard blast from just outside the box. The Cougars nearly found the net off a corner a minute later with a bouncing header but the Gainesville defense was able to clear the ball.
The Red Elephants survived the initial onslaught and began to put some counters together of their own. Rodriguez drew a penalty for a direct kick near the Cougars’ box in the 9th minute but his shot was thwarted by Tracy.
Three minutes later Gainesville got the first major break on a Chattahoochee defensive breakdown. Pedro Santos was able to get control of a loose ball just inside the box and chip a soft shot over Tracy that slowly trickled into the goal just ahead of a chasing defender for a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute.
The Cougars mounted a pair of counters over the next five minutes but Gainesville keeper Eduardo Bautista denied what looked like a sure goal with a miraculous save off a header from Michael Janowitz in the 22nd minute.
The Gainesville offense continued to press its own attack generating four corners over the next 12 minutes but could muster just one shot.
The Cougars began the second half the way they did the first half pushing the attack early. This time it paid off as Janowitz gathered a loose ball after the Red Elephants were unable to clear the ball and blasted a low screamer past Bautista to tie the match at 1-1 in the 44th minute.
Hernandez nearly got the lead back for Gainesville two minutes later but Tracy got a piece of his shot from 25 yards to deny the goal. The Red Elephants had another golden opportunity in the 53rd minute but a Rodriguez shot was blocked and then his rebound attempt sailed high.
In the 56th minute, Chattahoochee nearly took the lead but Bautista was able to snare a Janowitz one-timer.
The two teams then jockeyed back-and-forth between the boxes over the next 20 minutes until 'the play that never works’ did.