For the Johnson boys soccer team, playing in May -- championship week -- has become not just something to look forward to, but expected. When the Knights take the field on Thursday at McEachern Stadium, it will be their second straight Class 5A state championship game appearance.
For the Jefferson and Commerce girls, however, it’s like discovering a whole new world.
Both the Lady Dragons and Lady Tigers will be making their first-ever trips to the championship round this week. Commerce will play Social Circle in the Class A Public title match on Tuesday while Jefferson will take on Marist in the Class 4A finals on Thursday, both in Macon at Mercer Stadium.
It has been a quick ascent for the Commerce girls, who are playing in just their fourth season after the program was created in 2018 and did not play their first campaign until 2019.
The Jefferson girls played their first season in 2008. They made the 2017 and 2019 semifinals but finally cracked through into the finals last week with a stunning 5-0 win over Northwest Whitfield.
Jefferson coach Molly McCarty said the semifinal win over Northwest was long overdue.
“This has been years in the making and is huge for our program,” McCarty said. “One of our player's family who is currently on this year's team helped start Jefferson soccer in 2008. The win against Northwest Whitfield was dedicated to all of our past, present and future (players).”
Northwest had not allowed a single goal in the 2022 playoffs until running into the Lady Dragons offensive buzzsaw. The Lady Dragons (14-3-1) will face a similar scenario against Marist (15-5) who also has not allowed a single goal in the playoffs, including a 3-0 win over defending Class 4A champion North Oconee in the semifinals. The Lady Dragons have given up just one goal [a 2-1 win over Columbus] in their first four playoff matches.
“The keys to being successful against Marist will just be staying together as a team for 80 minutes,” McCarty said. “We must limit our mistakes. We have nothing to lose going into this game and everything to gain. We have played as the underdog now (in every playoff game) and that will be no different in the finals.”
The Johnson boys, however, are veterans of the trek to either Macon or McEachern. It is their fifth finals appearance since 2014. However, they are just 1-3 in the previous four trips to the title match. They won the 2018 Class 5A title with a 1-0 win over McIntosh. They lost 2-1 to McIntosh in last year’s championship match.
Johnson coach Frank Zamora said his group has used last year’s finals loss as motivation, and a learning tool, for this season. The Knights (20-1-1) beat Woodward Academy 6-5 in last week’s semifinals, which avenged a 4-3 loss to the War Eagles during the regular season.
The Knights will take on St. Pius (12-3-4) another team they have a chance to get some redemption against. The Golden Eagles beat them 3-0 in 2016 in the Class 4A championship match.
“(This group) gained valuable experience playing in the championship game last year,” Zamora said. “Sometimes the game itself is the best teacher. The tough loss made us stronger. It made us hungrier to get back and have another opportunity for a different outcome.”
The foundation to the Knights’ success has been a dominating defense, anchored by keeper Kristian Hernandez. But in the previous two rounds of the playoffs, the offense has exploded for 12 goals.
Zamora said they will need both against St. Pius. However, among common opponents, the Golden Knights were routed by Woodward 6-1 in their regular season finale.
“Both our defense and offense have been playing well. The offense is clicking, playing aggressive, and creating a lot of opportunities in the final third. We will have to continue to play that way,” he said. “However, our defense is also playing solid soccer. It will take a combined effort on Thursday.”
CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND SCHEDULE
TUESDAY, MAY 3
(at Mercer Stadium, Macon)
Class A Public
Commerce girls vs. Social Circle, 5 p.m.
THURSDAY, MAY 5
(at McEachern Stadium, Powder Springs)
Johnson boys vs. St. Pius,, 7:30 p.m.
THURSDAY, MAY 5
(at Mercer Stadium, Macon)
Jefferson girls vs. Marist, 5 p.m.
(Area teams listed in BOLD)