Winning has become the expectation for Johnson boys soccer coach Brian Shirley, even though it’s a yearly grind to make it deep into the postseason.
Before the 2014 season even began, the Knights (21-2) put the wheels in motion for a spectacular run with a cohesive group in offseason conditioning and strong participation in indoor leagues during the winter. That hard work paid off during the season with a berth in the Class AAAA state championship game and state runner-up finish, after a 2-0 loss to Dalton on May 17 at Kennesaw State University.
“It goes back to all the work they put in, going back to last summer and the tournaments then,” Shirley said. “The guys on this team had an excellent relationship on the field and always knew where their teammate was going to be.”
For his efforts, Shirley is The Times’ Soccer Coach of the Year.
“This year has been a great blessing, and I am thankful for the support from my administration and want to thank God for the successes we have had this year,” said Shirley, in his sixth year as the Knights’ coach. “And also for the blessings God has given me off the field this year. I also am so appreciative of the support from the school and community that supported us this season.”
At Johnson, Shirley has put an emphasis on building stamina and having players ready for the grind that comes with tight matches when legs can get tired in the heat of May. Much of their work is built around speed and agility work during the offseason. In addition, players run two miles before practice to get their cardiovascular conditioning up to par for a draining 90-minute match, full of running up and down the pitch.
Success is nothing new for the Knights under Shirley. Previously, they made the second round of state twice and have been in the postseason every year he’s been in charge in Oakwood. This year, Johnson was led by a group helmed by seniors Luis Deltoro, Israel Avila and Barut Perez. However, behind a talented rising junior class led by forward Fabian Abarca, the Knights envision more greatness next season with seven of 11 starters expected to return to the pitch. Shirley would like nothing more than to be able to guide the program to its first state title next season.
The pieces are in place. The Knights also have a loaded group of young talent coming into the high school ranks, fresh off a Hall County Middle School championship this season.
“I’m excited to see the mentality this group plays with next season,” Shirley said. “I want us to still be playing on the last play date next season.”
Johnson’s postseason run was marked with three wins by a single goal: A second-round win against Carrollton, 2-1, and by the same score against Cairo in the state quarterfinals. Then the Knights took down Southeast Whitfield 1-0 in the state semifinals.
Shirley says his coaching staff had just as much to do with the program’s success in 2014, including junior varsity coach Richie Vickers, who left the school after the year ended, and new junior varsity coach Frank Zamora.
“This group made history this season,” Shirley said. “They did an impressive job of setting the bar high for the program.”