The Gainesville High boys soccer team wasted little time on its 2018 postseason quest to return to the Class 6A state championship game.
The Red Elephants scored twice within the first five minutes Wednesday, April 25, en route to a 3-1 win against Pope in the first round of the state playoffs at City Park Stadium in Gainesville. Three different players scored for top-seeded and third-ranked Gainesville (17-2), which finished as state runner-up a year ago.
“If we play as well as we can, we know we can go up quickly on teams,” said junior striker Pedro Santos, who notched the Red Elephants’ first goal and also recorded an assist. “They pushed up on us, but we knew they were slower than us so we played some long balls for our wings.
“We were winning those, which led to goals for us.”
Gainesville will host a second-round game Wednesday, May 2, against either No. 2 seed Sprayberry, ranked sixth in the classification, or third-seeded Alexander.
On paper, the Red Elephants’ first-round opponent didn’t appear to be the average four-seed. The Greyhounds (13-5-1) hailed from the brutal Region 7-6A, finishing behind No. 1 Cambridge, No. 4 Chattahoochee — the reigning Class 6A champion — and No. 5 Alpharetta.
“They are a very solid team and played well,” Gainesville coach Elie Vivant said. “We were able to get up on them early, but I thought they had some really good chances, especially early in the second half.”
Yet the Red Elephants quickly put all the pressure on their opponent, starting with Santos’ goal just more than two minutes into the contest.
After fielding a deflected save by Pope’s goalie just outside the 6-yard box, he wheeled to his right, made a few nifty moves and whipped the ball into the left-hand pocket. Less than three minutes later, Santos found senior teammate Cristian Rodriguez for another goal.
Though each of the Gainesville’s first five shots were on target, the Greyhounds managed a threat of their own in the 17th minute.
Pope earned a free kick from the left flank that narrowly missed the mark, bouncing off the crossbar instead. The Red Elephants, however, immediately counterattacked and got the ball to a wide-open Dunio Turcios, who dribbled to the right of the goalkeeper and dumped the ball into the net for an easy score.
“Our first 10 or 20 minutes were great minutes,” Viviant said. “Once we got up, it was just a matter of holding the score where it was.”
His players did that for the most part, thwarting the Greyhounds’ occasional corner and free kicks. The second half was fairly uneventful until Pope, which entered Wednesday’s game having won five straight, scored with 3:50 remaining on William Meigs’ header off a throw-in.
The goal snapped a lengthy shutout streak for Gainesville, which didn’t surrender a goal over its final three regular-season games.
In fact, the Red Elephants had outscored their last four opponents by a combined margin of 18-1 after dropping back-to-back region games at the end of March. Santos said the pressure of trying to get back to the state championship game affected the team during that stretch, especially after it raced out to a 12-0 record and claimed a No. 1 ranking in Class 6A.
Those issues appear to be behind Gainesville now, even if the road to the state championship is still a long one.
“When we got to No. 1, people acted like we had already won everything, and it sort of made it harder to play,” Vivant said. “But we have been playing well these last five games. We’re not there yet, but hopefully we’ll go far again.”