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Four area soccer teams put seasons on the line in state semifinals
Chestatee, Gainesville, Johnson boys join Flowery Branch girls one game away from state finals
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Richmond Hill's Roman Alvarez, left, challenges Gainesville High's Edwin Garcia Saturday, May 5, 2018 during the second half of the Red Elephants 5-1 win in the Class 6A quarterfinals at City Park Stadium in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Semifinal schedule

Class 6A

Gainesville boys at Cambridge, 8 p.m.

Class 5A

Flowery Branch girls at McIntosh, 6 p.m.

Johnson boys at Starr’s Mill, 7:30 p.m.

Class 4A

Chestatee boys at Upson-Lee, 6:30 p.m.

The Chestatee High boys soccer team’s 2017 season was characterized by a series of near misses.

Five of that team’s eight losses came by only one goal, including a pair of crucial region setbacks against Blessed Trinity and Marist. Despite a trip to the state tournament and a first-round playoff win, those blown chances still lingered in the mind of War Eagles coach Michael Herrin.

So while reflecting on the season at the team’s end-of-year awards banquet, Herrin issued a challenge to his players.

“We talked about missed opportunities and what we can do with a bit more maturity and focus,” Herrin said. “At Chestatee, we talk about the three ‘Cs’ a lot — character, courage and commitment. I asked them, ‘If we boosted our commitment, where could it take us?’”

All the way to the state semifinals, it turns out.

Chestatee is one of four area teams competing today for spots in state championship games. The second-seeded War Eagles (18-2) are making their first-ever semifinal showing alongside the Flowery Branch girls and Gainesville and Johnson boys, which are all No. 1 seeds.

All four teams will be facing No. 1 seeds on the road. For playoff games between similar seeds, teams on the top half of the bracket have home-field advantage by virtue of a GHSA coin flip.

On top of offering a path to the state championship game, the semifinal round also represents a chance for revenge for the Lady Falcons (21-0). When they take on defending Class 5A champion McIntosh at 6 p.m. in Peachtree City, they’ll be looking to redeem their 5-2 semifinal loss from a year ago.

Flowery Branch coach Anel Lilic said he hasn’t broached the subject with his players, though he’s “sure it’s there in the back of their minds.”

The Lady Falcons will have their hands full regardless — McIntosh (18-1-2) has won state titles in three of the last four years and boasts 11 championships overall.

“There’s nothing different as far as the game plan or how we approach it,” Lilic said. “We’re playing one of the best teams in the state, so our focus is to be sharp and execute as well as we can.”

While Flowery Branch will be trying to break through to the state championship stage, Gainesville and Johnson are seeking to return there. The Red Elephants (18-2) lost in the state title match last year, and the Knights (16-2-2) did the same in 2016.

Johnson coach Brian Shirley said his players weren’t too pleased with their performance in the team’s 1-0, Class 5A quarterfinal win against Union Grove. The Knights will look to return to form when they face Starr’s Mill (13-7) at 7:30 p.m. in Fayetteville.

Gainesville, meanwhile, is set to clash with Cambridge (18-1) at 8 p.m. in Milton. After needing to rally to win in double overtime in the second round of the Class 6A tournament, the Red Elephants erupted for a 5-1 victory against Richmond Hill in the quarterfinals.

Then there’s Class 4A Chestatee, a stranger to the semifinals altogether.

Herrin, at least, has some experience making it this far into the postseason. He reached the state semifinals while coaching at Westover before taking over the War Eagles program when the school opened in 2002.

“Doing it with this group of guys has been very special,” Herrin said. “ … We’ve been on a hell of a run, and this season has been really fun.”

It started with an 11-game winning streak, during which victories against ranked teams like East Hall and Riverside Military led Herrin to think his team “might be onto something special.” But the coach still stressed taking one game at a time, a strategy that helped Chestatee get this far.

Herrin said Upson-Lee (19-1), which hosts the War Eagles at 6:30 p.m. in Thomaston, has speed up top that could create issues for his squad. 

“They can cause us problems if we don’t come out ready for them,” Herrin said. “We’re going to have to come out and execute … come to play and just leave it all on the field. That’s all we want to do — just have a chance.”

While last year’s Chestatee team might have let such a chance slip away, this season’s group seems poised to take advantage of it.