A sophomore on a squad loaded with seniors, Fabian Abarca knows what a state title would mean to his elder teammates on their way out of the Johnson soccer program.
He helped their cause with a dazzling offensive performance to open the postseason.
Abarca scored a pair of second-half goals after a barrage of early scoring chances, and the Knights began the Class AAAA state playoffs with a 3-0 first-round win over Marist on Saturday in Oakwood.
The agile forward netted goals in the 41st and 63rd minutes after leading a productive but scoreless first half for Johnson (17-1), which is in the second round of the state playoffs for the second consecutive year.
“You just have to be patient and wait for it to go in,” Abarca said. “You can’t lose your patience, and have to stay cool.”
Luis Hernandez added a goal in the 72nd minute, capping off a stellar outing for the second-ranked Knights that featured a 26-2 shot advantage against the fourth-seeded War Eagles (7-8-2).
Johnson faces 10th-ranked Carrollton in the second round Tuesday at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
“We have to play each game better than the last game,” Abarca said. “They’re going to get harder and harder, and there’s going to be more competition as we move on in the tournament.”
The Knights are looking to get past the second round for the first time since 2006, but they’ll do it in front of a home crowd where they have a 10-0 scoring edge in the three games since their only loss of the season, a 1-0 shortcoming against Gainesville on Apr. 18.
Even in that loss, coach Brian Shirley was satisfied with the way his team played, but is still chasing down a “complete” game from his players.
“We played well in the Gainesville game,” Shirley said. “We were disappointed that it wasn’t our night, but we played well for 65-70 minutes. The way we worked the ball and moved it tonight, we’re getting there. It’s just that final third of the field — finishing the opportunities.”
Individually, Abarca may have been as close to a complete game as any Johnson player this season.
He had five solid looks at the net in the first half, including a free kick in the 13th minute and a near miss in the 30th minute that was cleared by a Marist defender before it crossed the goal line.
Abarca finally found the back of the net just one minute into the second half, deflecting Luis Deltoro’s rolling shot in front of the War Eagles’ net for a 1-0 Johnson lead.
He fed a pass to Barut Perez that rattled off the crossbar eight minutes later, but made up for his second goal later in the half on an wide-open breakaway.
“He’s not the biggest kid out there, and I think that kind of plays into his game a little bit,” Shirley said. “He’s able to keep the ball tight to his body, so when he does make that move and the defender overcommits, he can bring it back in and he has that speed to go in.”
Hernandez made his goal look just as easy, flipping the ball over the head of Marist goalkeeper Michael Rummel with just enough to power to roll slowly into the net despite a sliding save attempt by Ben Shingleton.
“We knew if we could get one in, they’re going to have to press us a little bit and break out of what they were doing in the back,” Shirley said. “They were dropping nine guys, 10 guys behind the ball most of the time. We were getting the shots off, but we just didn’t have enough time or space to get that first opportunity in.
“It’s those games that drive you crazy.”
Marist wasn’t without opportunities of its own, just not nearly as many.
The War Eagles successfully headed a corner to an unprotected side of the Johnson net in the 11th minute, but Bryant Anaya managed to rip the ball out of harm’s way.
Marist attempted three consecutive corner kicks in the 27th minute, all unsuccessful.
The War Eagles’ season is complete with the loss. They will not advance to the second round for the first time since 2000.