Only 11 games into this 2018 campaign, Brian Shirley and his fourth-ranked Johnson boys soccer team are aiming for a more comfortable setting for this year’s state playoffs.
The Johnson coach hopes next Tuesday's non-conference clash with Peachtree Ridge will be the last time these Knights set foot on a bus before the state finals in Macon.
The Knights (8-2-1, 3-0 Region 8-5A) certainly made a huge leap toward achieving that objective against Buford on Friday night, notching a 5-1 win behind senior Rigo Campa’s third hat trick of the year.
“It’s just making sure we take care of business” said Shirley, who watched as his Knights were stunned in the opening round of the Class 5A tournament last May.
“It’s so big to have that 1-seed and be able to host playoff games in your own place. It’s more than a number beside your name on a bracket. It’s performing in front of your guys, your fans at home.”
Whistle-to-whistle, it was the first time this year, Shirley said, he has seen it all come together for his unit on what was a slightly slimmer, artificial turf pitch at Buford High. Just a clear indication Johnson has put last season’s heartbreak behind them.
“We had about 60, 65 minutes of our style we should have been playing,” Shirley said. “Other games, we’ve had bad first halves, good second halves, good first 20, last 20 good — middle 40 not so much. But we’re pretty happy with whistle-to-whistle today. This is probably the most we’ve seen that we’re capable of doing.”
That style he spoke of was a perpetual assault that dominated in terms of shots on goal and stretched Buford’s back line for most of the evening, allowing for Johnson’s attacking front to pick and choose from those pockets of space.
After leading 1-0 at the half, the Knights opened the floodgates during a second-half scoring onslaught as Campa netted three of Johnson's four goals while every single rostered player saw the field.
“It was across the board,” Shirley said. “Like I told the guys, when your number was called, whether it was five minutes, 10 minutes you did your job and there was no drop-off in play. That depth is just gonna be beneficial as we go on through April and May. It’s gonna be nice to have that quality of play coming off the bench.”
Buford captain Mario Ventura prevented the shutout in the form of a converted penalty kick inside 17 minutes left in regulation.
The aggressive Johnson attack kept Buford goalkeeper Nick Bowman busy. Bowman was able to keep the Wolves (4-8, 1-3) at a one-goal deficit after fending off a slew of Johnson strikes throughout the first half.
Marco Vazquez was responsible for most of those looks in the early going, nearly giving the Knights the lead as early as the third minute. Off the counter, Vazquez’s one-timer off a shallow cross inside the 18-yard box, rolled wide of the right post. And minutes later, Vazquez’s second clean look on goal was a rocket, though, Bowman was there to fall on top of it.
Those efforts finally gave way off the counter in the 16th minute. Cole Bowen threaded a beautifully angled pass into space for Villanel Albarran to track down, take two soft touches and steer a low shot behind a guessing goalkeeper on the mini-breakaway for a 1-0 Johnson advantage.
Less than two minutes later, the Knights deployed another onslaught from down the right flank before Buford’s goalkeeper fended off back-to-back shots.
Buford’s best look came from Ventura, whose launched free kick attempt from the 20-yard-line fell right into the arms of Johnson goalkeeper Cooper Bowen right before intermission.
Then Johnson blew the game wide open.
Campa stretched Johnson’s lead in the 43rd minute. His speed off the dribble came on full display when the senior scurried past a number of Buford defenders before launching a rocket into the back of the net to make it a two-score lead.
Campa added his final two goals in the 49th and 72nd minutes, the latter coming off the dribble and in traffic.
David Flores scored off a deflection inside 3 minutes left to cap Johnson’s second-half surge.
The Knights resume Region 8-5A play next Friday night against Cedar Shoals for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
Meanwhile, Buford hosts Banks County at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday before paying a visit to region opponent Walnut Grove at the same time Wednesday.
BUFORD GIRLS 3 JOHNSON 0: Ava Sherman, Arden Paulino (15th minute) and Heidi Orr each scored as the Lady Wolves (5-7, 3-1 Region 8-5A) cruised to their third-straight victory.