Boys soccer state playoffs
Class AAA: North Hall (14-4-1) at St. Pius X (16-5), 7:30 p.m.; West Hall (13-5-2) at Oconee County (18-3), 7:30 p.m.
Class AAAA: Southeast Whitfield (14-5-2) at Johnson (20-1), 6:30 p.m.
Three games and 891 round-trip miles later, North Hall’s boys soccer team is still eyeing its first state championship.
The battle-tested Trojans have survived lengthy bus trips from Chatsworth to Savannah over the past week and a half, with three road playoff victories to show for it. Carrying the lowest seed from Region 7-AAA as they travel around the state, they’ve picked off three teams in uncharted territory to keep their season alive.
North Hall (14-4-1) is back on the road today when it visits St. Pius X in the Class AAA state semifinals, the next phase of the longest postseason run the Trojans have enjoyed in more than 20 years.
“Home field advantage is a big deal, but that’s what makes these victories on the road even sweeter,” Trojans coach Jonathan Lillie said. “If we were playing on our own field, we’d be looking at different score lines.”
Another win puts fifth-ranked North Hall into the championship game. Strangely enough, all that traveling might pair the Trojans with a team just 20 miles down the road from campus.
West Hall, the No. 2 seed from Region 7-AAA, is also in the hunt for a state finals berth on the other side of the bracket. The Spartans (13-5-2) visit a tough Oconee County team tonight in Watkinsville.
The winners of the two games face each other Saturday at Emory University in a final potentially represented fully by Hall County, which had six boys soccer teams ranked in the top 10 of their respective classifications when the playoffs began.
“It would be fantastic if it was an all-Hall County championship,” Lillie said. “I can see that as a very high possibility. West Hall’s a very good team. We’ve played two tight matches with them this year. If we do face off with West Hall, it’ll be a game for the ages, and it’ll be a great one to watch.”
In Class AAAA, Johnson will also be vying for a title when it hosts Southeast Whitfield tonight in Oakwood.
All is well in Hall County when it comes to boys soccer.
“I think what’s happening kind of speaks for itself,” West Hall coach Tim Gale said. “We have a strong area in soccer. It’s good, because we help each other out by playing each other. We deal with adversity when we play in those games and have to find ways to play. It’s good for our programs, and it’s sure been a good thing to see Region 7-AAA do so well.
“I’m pulling for North Hall.”
But before West Hall and North Hall can think about a dream matchup in the championship game, they’ll need near-flawless performances tonight to get past their semifinal opponents.
Oconee County, ranked sixth in Class AAA, dealt the Spartans a second-round exit last season. With an 18-3 record, this year’s Indians (18-3) lead the classification in wins and have beaten nine of their last 10 opponents.
“I really think we’re focused on this game because it’s another game on the path to the finals,” Gale said. “The boys know they fell short to Oconee County last year, and they remember that. But we haven’t made a priority at all. It might be there, in a subtle way.”
West Hall has enjoyed a dominant postseason, having outscored opponents 13-1 during the three-game span. That includes a 3-1 upset over top-ranked Woodward Academy in the second round, followed by Friday’s 6-0 thrashing of Peach County in the quarterfinals.
Led by Jordan Moreno’s four goals in the last two games, the Spartans are enjoying their best three-game span on offense this season. And it’s happening at the perfect time.
“I think we’ve been able to control the game, in most situations,” Gale said. “In doing so, we can push ourselves forward and move forward in a proper way. Then we can work a guy or two forward and give us some extra people where we can work the ball in a more attacking fashion.”
Despite North Hall’s daunting matchup against second-ranked St. Pius X (16-5), which defeated Region 7-AAA champion Dawson County in the second round, Lillie has a pair of reasons why his team is still a threat to the Golden Lions despite the Trojans’ No. 4 seed.
Not only has North Hall been fantastic on the road of late, with playoff victories over North Murray, North Oconee and Islands, but the Trojans are also 5-0-1 in games played on turf this season. They’ll be on the artificial surface again today in Atlanta.
“We like everything we’re going to be going into (today),” Lillie said. “I hope they look past us. If they do, we’ll be up before they know it.”
Johnson is looking for its first trip the state finals after a close call in 2005, when the Knights lost to Flowery Branch in penalty kicks.
This year’s opponent is no newcomer to the grind of postseason action. Southeast Whitfield has reached the semifinals four of the past five seasons, including the championship game last year.
Three of the Raiders’ five losses this year were to Dalton, the top-ranked team in the state. The Knights aren’t far behind the Catamounts at No. 2.
“They’re fast, they touch the ball well,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. “They can play possession, they can play direct. They’re just a very multi-faceted team, and they’ve been in games like this numerous times before.
“They’re probably one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve faced up to this point of the season.”
The Knights can only hope for a dry night at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium. Rain has slowed them down in recent games, including Friday’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over Cairo.
Tuesday’s forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms, giving Johnson a chance to avoid a build-up of water near the sidelines that can interfere with the pace of the offense.
“It kind of threw us off a bit and slowed us down,” Shirley said. “I think it would’ve been a little different outcome if the rain hadn’t come. The first 15-20 minutes we were thinking we were doing pretty well.”