For someone who has spent the vast majority of his coaching stint on the boys side, Anel Lilic has certainly enjoyed leading the Flowery Branch girls soccer team in his first season at the helm since taking over for Katie Scali.
Not having to break through the ‘male ego’ is one of the positives Lilic jokingly said he could take from the transition thus far. Being able to work with a sharp, close-knit group of players, however, has been the brightest spot.
“We are blessed to have a well-rounded group that play at a high level outside of high school and clubs, and just the culture of the team,” Lilic said. “They are a fun group to coach, they’re great people and they love being around each other. It’s been a fun experience for me.”
Lilic was especially impressed how his squad found a way through the defenses of Johnson to notch its third region win of the season Friday, March 16, in Flowery Branch.
Caroline Wysocki and Larsyn Reid each scored as the second-ranked Lady Falcons recorded a 2-0 shutout of the Lady Knights in order to preserve their unbeaten mark this year.
It has Flowery Branch (11-0, 3-0 Region 8-5A) off to its best start since 2012, when Scali’s program rattled off 14-straight wins during a 17-2 campaign.
“It’s a big region game,” Lilic said. “For us, obviously one of our goals is to win region. It’s just preparing for every game that comes. ...It was special for our girls. ...They are a couple of miles down the road.”
The Lady Knights (6-5-1, 1-1) didn’t make things easy for a Lady Falcons attacking front accustomed to a more pressing defense.
The result was very few scoring looks outside the handful of chances off the set piece in the first half.
“Johnson did a really good job of frustrating us, were very compact, sat back,” Lilic said. “We usually get pressed, which allows for a more open game. We tried to move our system around in order to combat that.”
One Flowery Branch adjustment finally started to come together in just enough time to give the Lady Falcons the lead right before the half. It came courtesy of the right winger Wysocki and attacking mid Anna Grady, who used her vision and precision to put the hosts in position for its first score in the 26th minute.
Grady, scurrying down the left flank, switched the field with a beautifully rolled cross to split two Johnson defenders before meeting Wysocki, who collected the ball just right of the 6-yard box and slotted her left-footed strike inside the left pocket.
“In the first half, we tried to move our wingers in, kind of play without a forward,” Lilic said. “Without that forward there, she dropped into the midfield, which allowed that space for Anna (Grady) to play that ball through, and our winger run on to it. It was a great look from Anna and a good finish. It came at a good time in the game.”
That it did.
Less than a minute later, the Lady Knights nearly answered. Dani Malone, from atop the 18-yard box, took a boot that sailed well over the crossbar. And inside the 39th minute, goalkeeper Hannah Pimentel hauled in a long free kick attempt from Maria Rivera, another for Johnson to let off a series of shots alongside her teammate Malone in the first half.
Pimentel saw even more action late in the second half as the Falcons onslaught broke through for the final time behind the freshman midfielder Reid in the 56th minute. She galloped down the left flank from near midfield and snuck around Johnson’s defense before steering a shot through the back door into the side of the net.
Pimentel used some quick reflexes to fend off a late Johnson push in the final minutes. Pimentel made a diving stop to cut off a breakaway chance by Johnson to start, and with less than 12 minutes left, used both gloves to swat away a hard-struck ball from the center of the 18-yard box.
“(Hannah) was probably in the game for 60 minutes without any real action, and she made two huge saves back-to-back that could have shifted the momentum of the game. She’s been big-time for us this year, to have her back there for us as a safety net,” Lilic said of his goalkeeper.
While a win is sweet, Lilic indicated their best soccer is still ahead of them.
“Obviously, I don’t think we were at our best — we have a lot of things we need to keep improving,” Lilic said. “But it was good we could find the two goals and get a win in another important region match.”
Both teams continue region play next Friday, March 23 when Johnson visits Buford at 5:30 p.m., while Flowery Branch hosts Clarke Central for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
JOHNSON BOYS 5, FLOWERY BRANCH 1: Rigo Campa notched a brace (two goals), while goalkeeper Cooper Bowen recorded five saves as the fifth-ranked Knights (7-2-1, 2-0) rolled to a Region 8-5A win in Flowery Branch.
Minutes after Campa put Johnson ahead first in the eighth minute, Michael Montez scored the equalizer for the Falcons’ (5-5, 1-2) only goal of the match. Johnson regained the lead just before the break off the boot of Villanel Albarran before doing more damage in the second half.
Goals by Campa (58th minute), David Flores and Michael Arcia (72nd) off a free kick helped the Knights pull away.