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High school soccer playoffs: Chestatee boys give away late lead, fall 3-2 in state championship game
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Yiovany Hernandez of Chestatee (16) kicks the ball on Saturday, May 12, 2018, during the first half of the Class 4A state championship soccer game against Northwest Whitfield at Mercer University's Five Star Stadium in Macon. - photo by David Barnes

MACON — Even after a gut-wrenching loss in the Class 4A state championship game Saturday, May 12, Chestatee High boys soccer coach Michael Herrin insisted his team belonged there.

The contest’s close and thrilling finish certainly validated his belief.

After the War Eagles took the lead with less than seven minutes to play, Northwest Whitfield scored twice in the final three minutes, 30 seconds to claim a 3-2 victory and snatch away the state championship at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium.

In an impassioned speech to his stunned players following the match’s conclusion, Herrin focused on the huge strides they made this season. No. 2 seed Chestatee (19-3) compiled the best record in program history and reached its first-ever state championship game — in fact, it was the first for any team sport in school history.

“This is the best team I’ve ever been associated with as it relates to personality, work ethic and determination,” said Herrin, who has led the program since Chestatee opened in 2002. “These kids helped take the program to another level.

“They should be proud to have advanced this far with the resume they had. If you look at some of the teams we beat, we had a hard schedule. They showed they should be here.”

When junior forward Uriel Rocha scored on an assist from senior midfielder Mateus Jennings with 6:25 to play, it looked like the second-ranked War Eagles were worthy of much more.

But the Bruins (18-4-1) had other ideas.

Freshmen midfielders Sergio Soria and Fabian Navarro each scored in the game’s closing minutes to hand second-seeded Northwest Whitfield its first state title in remarkable fashion. It completed a spirited playoff run by the Bruins, who leaned heavily on freshmen after losing their top two scorers to disciplinary issues prior to the playoffs.

“Northwest Whitfield is a resilient team, a bunch of fighters,” Herrin said. “We had seen it from them on film. … You can’t let a good team have opportunities like that.”

There were plenty of opportunities for both teams throughout the night, though neither capitalized in a scoreless first half.

Chestatee, which relied mostly on its counterattack to create chances, saw two golden opportunities slip away late in the opening period. 

With 12 minutes until halftime, junior defender Jonatan Maldonado made a run all the way down the left flank and got free near the 18-yard box, but his shot cleared the crossbar by just inches. Then, in the final minute of the first half, sophomore defender Yiovany Hernandez surged from the back line to penetrate the box and deliver a cross to the front of the net.

But senior forward Alex Salazar’s first touch drifted a tad too far, allowing Northwest Whitfield senior goalkeeper Vicente Vaca to pounce on the ball and keep the game knotted at halftime.

“Chances, chances, chances,” Herrin said. “We couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. We had about three or four solid opportunities to put the game away early.”

Instead, seventh-ranked Northwest Whitfield was the squad to break through about five minutes into the second half. Freshman forward Anthony Ramirez fired a laser into the upper-left pocket of the net from about 30 yards out to hand the War Eagles their first deficit this postseason.

Chestatee, meanwhile, missed another point-blank shot in the 56th minute before senior midfielder Austin Manzo found the equalizer.

Rocha threaded a pass diagonally across the 18-yard box to a wide-open Manzo, who gathered the ball before firing a right-footed rocket over Vaca’s head and eliciting a frenzy from the War Eagles faithful with about 21 minutes to play.

Then came that late flurry of goals that turned a match between first-time state championship contenders into an instant classic.

Jennings beat several defenders down the right flank and whipped a cross back into the 18-yard box, causing a pileup of players that included both Rocha and the opposing goalie. Lying face-down mere feet from the goal, Rocha appeared to nudge the ball into the net with his head, an unusual score that seemingly gave Chestatee the edge it needed.

But less than three minutes later, Soria collected a cross on the left side of the goal and buried it into the near post. Before the War Eagles could recover, Navarro stole the ball following a free kick, beat his man over the next 20 yards and notched the deciding goal with a left-footed strike.

“I think both teams settled in and realized they could play with each other,” Herrin said. “I think both teams were nervous being here for the first time, and after long road trips. But we settled in and realized we could play with them. Being 0-0 at halftime, it was anybody’s game.”

It was Chestatee’s game for a few fleeting moments, but now the War Eagles turn their attention toward building on their historic campaign.

Chestatee will lose 10 seniors, five of whom were starters, from this season’s record-breaking squad. Herrin said he hopes next year is less of a “reload” and more of his players continuing to embrace the “next-man-up” mentality that lifted them through a handful of injuries this season.

That mentality nearly netted the War Eagles a championship, after all.