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High school soccer: Unbeaten Flowery Branch girls among title-hungry programs bracing for state playoffs
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Caroline Wysocki of Flowery Branch (3) kicks the ball during the game between Flowery Branch and East Hall in Flowery Branch, on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. - photo by David Barnes
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Jairo Valdez of East Hall (14) chases the ball during the Region 7-3A match between East Hall and Greater Atlanta Christian in Gainesville, on Friday, April 13, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

With a perfect regular-season mark achieved, the third-ranked Flowery Branch High girls soccer team has only begun to scratch the surface of what’s to come.

First-year coach Anel Lilic has watched his starting 11 roll to a Region 8-5A championship. Now, the Lady Falcons (18-0) will look to leverage that success into a first-ever state championship berth as the state soccer playoffs commence today.

Once again, Flowery Branch looks the part of a squad poised for big things as one of four area teams — along with the Gainesville boys, East Hall boys, Johnson boys — with top playoff seedings.

“Our culture and standards have worked for us all year,” said Lilic, who took over for longtime coach Katie Scali after the program’s historic state semifinal run last spring.

Lilic hasn’t had to change much either. Despite fielding four seniors — Megan Shadbolt, Alexis Kent, Elise Lewis and Katharine Lonczak — the experience of his fellow returning starters (Caroline Wysocki, Callie Huff and Anna Grady) paired with a dynamic batch of underclassmen make for a lethal and exciting brand of Flowery Branch soccer. 

The Lady Falcons have tallied 131 goals while only yielding eight against their opposition this season.  

“It’s important to have that experience, the way the girls have played together,” Lilic said. “They’ve applied a sense of confidence and courage in this system. They’ve really grown together.”

Lilic hopes that approach will translate into big things. Flowery Branch’s postseason path — if the team is successful in its quadrant — even hints at a semifinal clash with McIntosh, ranked No. 1 in the Class 5A and the defending state champions. 

McIntosh ended the Lady Falcons’ historic run before topping Buford — a No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament — in the final last spring. It was the Lady Chiefs’ fifth state title in seven seasons and 11th overall for the program.

For now, a win tonight for Flowery Branch would mean a second-round matchup against either No. 3 Arabia Mountain or No. 2 Riverwood. The Lady Falcons defeated Riverwood, 1-0,  in the opening round last spring.

Still, Lilic said his players have shown a great deal of humility throughout their explosive season, indicating their expectations are far from being met.

“The girls have continued to set a high standard at practice. ... They’ve trusted us and we’ve trusted them,” Lilic said. “(Soccer is) a weird sport. ... With this being single elimination, anything can happen.”

The Johnson boys experienced the worst of Lilic’s logic around this time last year. The Knights stormed into the Class 5A tournament with top playoff seeding before their abrupt exit with a loss to Grady in the opening round. 

Now on the heels of a fourth-consecutive region title, the fourth-ranked Knights (13-2-2) are gunning for redemption. Boys coach Brian Shirley indicated after his team’s March 23 region win against Buford that last season’s heartbreak is in the rear-view mirror, and his squad is all business as it seeks a return to Macon after finishing as state runner-up in 2016.

Meanwhile, Eli Viviant’s fourth-ranked Gainesville boys (15-2) held steady in a scoreless half to win the Region 8-6A championship game postponed due to inclement weather earlier last week. The 2017 state runner-up Red Elephants caught steam in ample time as they currently carry a three-match win streak into the tournament and are guaranteed to host the first two playoff rounds at City Park Stadium.

Although a 12-game win streak to kickstart 2018 also merited a top ranking for the Chestatee boys in the Class 4A last month, the War Eagles stumbled briefly with a loss to fellow Class 4A frontrunner Marist, which cost them a shot at the Region 7-4A crown. 

But the third-ranked War Eagles still seek a strong push in the Class 4A tournament as the region’s No. 2 seed following a second-round appearance last season.

In the Class 3A, earning a top playoff seed did not come by leisure for the East Hall boys (12-2-3). In a Region 7-3A match that came down to penalty kicks, the fourth-ranked Vikings got three big-time saves from goalkeeper Oscar Rosas as they captured their second-ever league crown and avenged last season’s title-game loss to the Spartans. 

Solidifying that top seed proved pivotal for Chris Horton’s East Hall program, which could next face Lovett, a No. 2 seed from a region packed with powerhouse schools. It includes defending Class 3A champion Westminster and Pace Academy, the latter of which ousted the Vikings in the state semifinals last May.

First-round schedule

Today’s games

Buford girls vs. Cass

Flowery Branch girls vs. Kell

Gainesville girls at Johns Creek

Johnson girls at Rome

Wednesday’s games

Gainesville boys vs. Pope

Flowery Branch boys at Carrollton

Johnson boys vs. Kell

Thursday’s games

Chestatee girls at St. Pius X

Lakeview Academy girls at Darlington

Friday’s games

Chestatee boys vs. Jefferson

East Hall boys vs. Franklin County

West Hall boys at North Oconee

Riverside Military Academy at Darlington