MACON — Before Friday, May 11, the Johnson High boys soccer program’s history in state championship games was both recent and heartbreaking.
The Knights suffered shutout losses on that stage in both 2014 and 2016, leaving a surging squad on the brink of a breakthrough searching for its first title. The sting of the latter loss only worsened when Johnson was upset in the first round of last year’s playoffs as a No. 1 seed.
But in a matter of less than 60 seconds Friday, Cooper Bowen, Michael Arcia and their teammates made it all seem like a distant memory.
Bowen came up with a pair of miraculous diving saves before Arcia scored in the 67th minute to lift the Knights to a 1-0 win against McIntosh in the Class 5A state championship game at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium.
“I’m speechless right now,” Bowen said after hugging his mother amid a swarm of celebrating fans. “There are no words that can describe how ecstatic this team is right now. After that loss (in the state title game) two years ago, and even after getting knocked out in the first round last year, we got hungrier than ever before.
“It will be hard for future teams at Johnson to rival this group of guys.”
The top-seeded Knights (18-2-2) also set a high bar for their successors when it comes to a celebration.
As the final seconds slipped off the clock, Bowen sprinted to join his teammates at midfield. They immediately rushed over to the large group of students waving Johnson flags in the stands, and the group returned to its supporters after being presented with the state championship trophy.
“I don’t think I can put this into words,” said Knights coach Brian Shirley, who also led the 2014 and 2016 teams. “There is not one community in the state that deserves this more than Johnson, and that’s from the high school all the way down to the middle school.
“We’re so blessed to get to do this for the community. I’m so happy to see this after our guys worked their butts off all year.”
To make the historic victory even sweeter, second-ranked Johnson earned its first-ever state championship by defeating one of the state’s most prominent programs. No. 2 seed McIntosh (18-5), ranked fifth in Class 5A, was aiming for its second straight title and seventh overall.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Knights also avenged a February home loss on penalty kicks against McIntosh.
Friday’s game was indeed a matchup between two evenly matched heavyweights, and they spent the first 20 minutes feeling each other out, pushing the ball from end to end but with few shots to show for it.
Things opened up more for both teams as the contest wore on, especially after Shirley switched formations to lighten the pressure on his midfielders. Though the Knights were still empty-handed 25 minutes into the second half after racking up double-digit shots — many of which were on target — doubts never crept into Shirley’s mind.
“We had opportunity after opportunity, but with nothing going in,” he said. “ … But we wanted to keep the pressure on and figured we’d sink something in.”
Arcia delivered on his coach’s optimism, but not before Bowen made arguably the play of game.
With just less than 15 minutes to play, the junior goalie had to backpedal and dive backward to punch away a chipped shot on a well-placed cross back into the box.
But the Chiefs managed to wrangle the rebound on the right side of the goal and attempted to nudge in a shot. Bowen, however, scrambled on his hands and knees to fall on the ball and preserve the scoreless tie.
“We were that deep into the game and that close, so I knew I had to put in that effort,” said Bowen, who finished with seven saves and collected numerous crosses in the air. “In the end, it helped us get the win. I don’t see (the play) as anything special; I’m just doing my part as a captain and goalie to get us the win.”
His teammates shared the sentiment, whisking the ball downfield in a hurry and eventually earning a corner kick. Arcia, surprised to find himself unguarded so close to the 18-yard box, took one touch off the pass and made his move.
The senior forward booted a left-footed strike that ricocheted off a defender and landed at his feet, then he used his right to send it back toward the net.
Chiefs sophomore goalie Jonathan Bennett, who made nine saves to keep his team in the game, fell to his knees and initially stopped the ball, but it rolled off his gloves into the right pocket and sent the Johnson crowd into a frenzy.
“When I hit it with my right foot, I thought it might trickle in,” Arcia said. “It just happened. After the goal went in, we knew we just had to possess the ball.”
Johnson did just that, turning away a few frantic McIntosh attempts as the minutes dwindled. Bowen watched as the Chiefs’ desperate shot in the final seconds rolled to the right of the net before leaving the area he so fiercely guarded all night to celebrate the win.
Several Knights openly wept in the aftermath of their historic win, a sign of joy after so much heartbreak in recent seasons.
They mingled with their fans long after the final buzzer sounded, soaking in a monumental victory shared by team and supporters alike.
“The fans always come out at every game for us, so we felt like it was time to finally give back to the community,” Arcia said with a hint of a smile. “We finally did it. It was our year.”