Showing off his unyielding pace and a silky smooth tap-in, Johnson’s best striker put Class AAAA on notice.
The junior scored twice and set up the Knights’ third goal in a composed 3-1 win over county rival East Hall (9-4-1) Tuesday night at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in Oakwood. Coming off of his two-game suspension for a red card against Madison County on March 20, Abarca said he was “hungry” to get back on the pitch.
“It was great, being back on the field, it made me really happy. This is what I love to do to be back with my team, my family,” he said. “Getting that first goal pumped me up harder and harder to play my game.”
Abarca, who leads Johnson (11-2, 5-1 Region 8-AAAA) in goals scored, was in vintage form in his first game in 11 days.
It took only eight minutes for him to put the Knights in front, after heading home a loose ball in the East Hall box after Vikings defenders couldn’t clear a corner.
Less than two minutes later, Abarca was celebrating his second goal. He wrangled possession of a loose ball on the right wing, blew past East Hall left-back Osbaldo Aviles and buried a low shot past Vikings goalkeeper Antonio Perez (five saves).
Abarca pumped his fist in the air in glee, ecstatic to be off the scout team and back in the spotlight.
“He’s been so hungry on the training field, you can see the motivation in his eyes that he was ready to go,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley. “Right now, he’s all ready and keyed in on these final region games.”
Leo Toledo was East Hall’s lone bright spot, as the forward whipped up and down Johnson’s right wing. But Johnson’s Isaac Henry and Edgar Torres did an admirable job of making sure Toledo couldn’t link up with strike partners Carlos Castrejon and Diego Alarcon.
The Knights have allowed a goal or less in each of their last eight games.
“It’s Johnson, they know how to defend,” said Toledo. “They communicate, they talk, and it took me to the end to finally get one. Sometimes it takes doing it yourself to finally get it.”
Toledo bagged a consolation goal for East Hall in the 78th minute when he managed to split two defenders and nail a hard shot into the bottom right corner of Gerardo Molina’s (four saves) net.
But his effort was for naught against a fluid Johnson team that looked much improved coming off of its disappointing loss at Buford and its nail-biting penalty shootout win over Chestatee. Abarca was suspended for both games after being called for a hard foul against Madison County.
But the Knights will have their leader back for key road region games against Monroe Area (April 2) and White County (April 17). Shirley described both games as “region title games,” and added that it was imperative his team not slip up down the stretch.
Johnson has a tiebreaker lead over North Oconee (12-2, 6-1). If the Knights win out, they’ll clinch a No. 1 seed in the upcoming state playoffs.
“Helping my team out, winning this game, it’s the most I can do, coming back,” Abarca said. “This team can make it all the way and actually win the state title. I believe in this team. They have great chemistry, and they can win the state title.”
Jonathan Rebollar buried an insurance header off of Abarca’s corner with less than 10 minutes to go to put Johnson up 3-0 before Toledo wrestled back a goal.
East Hall will need to turn its focus to Banks County at home on Friday as the Vikings look to protect a 3-0 region record.
But the night belonged to Abarca, who was at ease putting his team through post-game stretches. With Johnson’s biggest scoring threat back on the field, Shirley can afford to feel good about his team’s playoff hopes.
The Knights completed “the Hall County sweep,” winning games against all of their county opponents for the first time since 2011.
“We try to challenge our guys with a tough schedule,” he said. “Playing Gainesville, Flowery Branch, East Hall, West Hall, it gets us ready for state, and they’ve responded well to that.”
JOHNSON GIRLS 7, EAST HALL 0: With just two days until their 18th birthday, Kelsey and Logan Dumanowsky achieved their shared goal in their final year at Johnson High.
Kelsey helped assist Logan on Johnson’s fifth goal of the evening in a one-sided rout Tuesday night at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in Oakwood.
Logan, who typically plays in defense, was moved up to center midfield in an effort to score after halftime. By that time, Kelsey had already scored twice and Hannah Hester once to put the Lady Knights (3-8-1) up 3-0.
Johnson’s win breaks a four-game losing streak. East Hall (2-12) has lost 10 of its last 11 games since March 3.
“It feels good to get the win, when we can,” said Kelsey. “Especially to do this in our senior year and help Logan score.”
Logan tucked home Kelsey’s pass across the penalty box with 16:28 left in the second half, which the senior twins celebrated with a jubilant hug.
“With our birthday on Friday, it’s like an early birthday present,” said Logan.
Kelsey earned a hat trick in the win after putting Johnson up 6-0 with 11 minutes left. Hannah Hester scored in both the first and second half, while Itzel Rivera added a goal midway through the second half.
Evelin Avitia recorded four assists for Johnson.
East Hall hosts Banks County on Friday at 5:30 p.m. Johnson travels to Monroe Area on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.