After months of preseason, practice and penalty shootouts, the area’s boys soccer teams will finally get to focus on the playoffs.
Gainesville, West Hall, and Johnson are all expected to make deep runs, while East Hall, Buford and Dawson County have the talent and depth to pull off upsets.
No. 4 Gainesville vs. Cambridge
When: 7 p.m. April 29
Where: City Park Stadium
Record: Gainesville (13-3, 9-0 Region 8-AAAAA); Cambridge (11-5-1, 6-3 7-AAAAA)
Coaches: Gainesville, Rick Howard; Cambridge, Bryan Wallace
Key players: M Diego Porras, M Cesar Salcido, F Erik Bonilla
Season overview/playoff outlook: Following his team’s 10-0 thumping of Salem on March 20, Gainesville’s Diego Porras said he felt his team was “unstoppable.” So far, he hasn’t been proven wrong.
The Red Elephants are currently riding a 10-game winning streak into the first round of the playoffs, where they’ll meet Cambridge, the No. 4 seed of 7-AAAAA. The visiting Bears lost a close game to No. 10-ranked Sequoyah in the final game of the regular season, and scored against No. 1 Dalton before falling 4-1 on April 17.
But confidence is soaring for Rick Howard’s team, which recently gave its head coach his 250th career win. The Red Elephants haven’t been truly put to the test since their last loss on March 7 to Class AAAAAA Habersham Central. Since then, Gainesville has scored 45 goals, while allowing just four.
Flowery Branch boys at No. 1 Dalton
When: 7 p.m. April 29
Record: Flowery Branch (6-10, 6-3 Region 8-AAAAA); Dalton (15-0, 9-0 Region 7-AAAAA)
Coaches: Flowery Branch, Rick Godfrey; Dalton, Matt Cheaves
Key players: Flowery Branch, GK Cade Minton, F Sebastian Fernandez
Season overview/playoff outlook: The Falcons are gaining traction at the right time, but they’ll have a tough time stopping Georgia’s most dominant team. Flowery Branch has won three straight after losing eight of its first nine games to start the season. Goalkeeper Cade Minton has secured the starting spot in net after spending the majority of the season battling with backup Chewy Alverado.
But either goalie would have a tough time keeping out undefeated Dalton, which has won the last two AAAA state titles. The Catamounts average 4.6 goals per game, while the Falcons have failed to score in six games this season.
This is the first time in three seasons that Flowery Branch has made the state playoffs.
No. 4 Johnson boys vs. Pickens County
When: 7:30 p.m. April 29
Where: Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium, Gainesville
Records: Johnson (15-2, 7-1 Region 8-AAAA); Pickens County (1-5-1, 0-3 Region 8-AAA)
Coaches: Johnson, Brian Shirley; Pickens County, Tony Flynn
Key players: F Fabian Abarca, M Jaime Rosales, M/D Rigo Campa
Season overview/playoff outlook: The Knights will go the way of their top striker, Fabian Abarca, who has scored 20 goals in 2015 so far. The senior, who can turn defenders inside out with his pace, has looked excellent this season, but Johnson has struggled without him.
Abarca was suspended for two games after a red card against Madison County in the middle of the season. During those two games, Johnson fell to Buford and needed penalty kicks to defeat Chestatee at home.
The Knights will likely have no trouble at all dispatching No. 4 seed Pickens County in the first round. Since getting Abarca (20 goals this season) back from suspension, Johnson won the last five games of the season.
Shirley is giving his players plenty of rest in between practices in order to heal up “nicks and bruises,” and said his team is pretty close to full health.
Johnson’s strength is its bench. Shirley was able to go 16 or 17 players deep in a recent win over East Hall. Freshmen Rigo Campa and Marco Vazquez have proved worthy starters, and Jaime Rosales is dangerous with his cross on the right wing.
Shirley has tried three different players to fill his left wing position, and said he’ll be looking to play “the hot hand” against playoff opponents.
“Some people might have thought, coming in, that this would be a rebuilding year, so to speak, but we don’t have the mindset here,” said Shirley. “We full expect to come out with the level we did in previous years, and not experience any drop off.”
Buford boys at Northwest Whitfield
When: 6 p.m. April 29
Where: Tunnel Hill
Records: Buford (8-6-1, 6-2 Region 8-AAAA); Northwest Whitfield (16-2, 6-1 Region 7-AAAA)
Coaches: Buford, Victor Lane; Northwest Whitfield, Ryan Scoggins
Key players: F Miguel Burgos, F Christian Salgado
Season overview/playoff outlook: If they weren’t in a stacked 8-AAAA, Buford would easily be a No. 2 seed because of its tenacious, never-say-die attitude. The Wolves came back from 2-0 down to force overtime, and eventually penalties, against a then-undefeated Chestatee team. The Wolves took advantage of a Fabian Abarca-less Johnson team to pick up a big region win on March 24. But they’ve struggled against weaker teams, only picking up narrow wins against North Hall, Monroe Area and White County.
Buford faces the unenviable task of facing Northwest Whitfield in the first round. The Bruins have won nine straight heading into Wednesday’s clash in Tunnel Hill. If Buford can find a way to keep the score level after halftime, it has a shot of creating an early upset.
Chestatee boys at No. 6 Southeast Whitfield
When: 6 p.m. April 29
Records: Chestatee (10-5, 5-3 Region 8-AAAA); Southeast Whitfield (12-2-3, 7-0 Region 7-AAAA)
Coaches: Chestatee, Michael Herrin; Southeast Whitfield, Kevin Kettering
Key players: Chestatee, F Arnold Gamez
Season overview/playoff outlook: Depending on how you look at it, the War Eagles have been the beneficiaries or the victims of a hot-and-cold season. Chestatee began the season on a 7-0 win streak, then dropped five straight on the road, including three region games. The key piece to Chestatee’s attack is Arnold Gamez, although all 10 of Herrin’s outfield starters have scored throughout the season. Since its loss to Class AAAAA Gainesville on April 13, Gamez has scored five goals to help Chestatee shut out its last three opponents.
Chestatee fended off a late Buford rally to defeat the Wolves at home on penalty kicks on March 17, and kept No. 2-ranked Johnson on its toes 10 days later.
“It’s like the (Southeastern Conference),” said Herrin. “You’ve go and beat up on each other, and then see how that matches up. On any given night, it’s a game night where everyone steps up.”
Southeast Whitfield has gone undefeated since March 14, including seven shutouts in 12 games.
No. 3 West Hall boys vs. East Jackson
When: 6 p.m. May 1
Where: Spartan Field, West Hall High School
Records: West Hall (8-1-2, 6-0 Region 7-AAA); East Jackson (5-7-1, 3-3 Region 8-AAA)
Coaches: West Hall, Tim Gale; East Jackson, Rich Friedman
Key players: West Hall, F Sammy Coto, M Simon Cobian, D Richie Castruita
Season overview/playoff outlook: The Spartans boast one of the most balanced rosters in the area, and will be expected to go deep into the playoffs. Coming off last year’s appearance in the semifinals, midfielder/forward Simon Cobian and striker Sammy Coto will have plenty of motivation to bring their team a step closer to a state title.
Richie Castruita has done well to turn defense to attack, and head coach Tim Gale said his defense is one of the most impressive part of his team. The Spartans haven’t given up more than two goals in a game all season.
“The individual skill we have is excellent,” he said. “They’ve been playing for a long time, obviously. We’re finding a way to move the ball to better put it on the foot for those who can bring it up.”
West Hall ended the regular season on a six-game winning streak. East Jackson lost seven of its last nine games.
No. 4 East Hall boys vs. Jefferson
When: 6:30 p.m. May 1
Where: East Hall High School, Gainesville
Records: East Hall (12-5-1, 5-1 Region 7-AAA); Jefferson (6-6-1, 3-3 8-AAA)
Coaches: East Hall, Chris Horton; Jefferson, Casey Colquitt
Key players: East Hall, F Leo Toledo, M Carlos Castrejon
Season overview/playoff outlook: The Vikings proved this year that nothing but the scoreline will matter in a talent-packed 7-AAA.
Needing to upset No. 3-ranked Dawson County, East Hall ground out an absorbing 4-2 win on penalty kicks on the final day of the regular season to earn a home playoff game. East Hall has reached the state playoffs for seven of the last nine years.
Leading from the front is senior striker Leo Toledo, who’s scored 49 goals so far this year. He often links up with offensive midfielder Carlos Castrejon, who can send the speedy Toledo down either flank.
The Dawson County vs. East Hall game has come down to penalty kicks for the last four consecutive years. The Vikings finished second only to No. 2-ranked West Hall, who beat East Hall 2-0 on April 17.
“I’m more than happy with a 2 seed in our region,” said head coach Chris Horton. “A 2 or 3 seed, it’s an accomplishment.”
Each of Jefferson’s region wins this season have come from teams with overall losing records.
No. 5 Dawson County boys at Jackson County
When: 6 p.m. May 1
Records: Dawson County (10-3-2, 4-2 Region 7-AAA), Jackson County (7-4, 5-1 Region 8-AAA)
Coaches: Dawson County, Jed Lacey; Jackson County, Bob Betz
Key players: Dawson County, F Brandon Lund, M Jonathan Steele
Season overview/playoff outlook: Despite dropping to a No. 3 seed, the Tigers are just as dangerous as any other team in Class AAA. Losses to region foes West Hall (in overtime) and East Hall (on penalty kicks) belie a season in which the Tigers have shown a dangerous offense.
Senior midfielder Sal Mendoza won’t be able to play until the third round after receiving a two-game red card suspension during the East Hall game. Look for Lund (15 goals) to pick up the slack.
Dawson County lost only one nonregion match all season, including a 1-0 victory over Blessed Trinity.
Jed Lacey has his team organized for the playoffs, and will look to solve the goal-scoring woes that gave his team trouble against the Spartans and the Vikings.
Jackson County had a rough end to the regular season, losing to Gainesville, Oconee and North Oconee within 10 days.
But comfortable wins over Morgan County and Elbert County gave the Panthers a shot to play postseason soccer.
Lumpkin County at Oconee County
When: 7 p.m. May 1
Records: Lumpkin County (6-10, 3-3 Region 7-AAA); Oconee County (12-5, 6-0 Region 8-AAA)
Coaches: Lumpkin County, Flavio Colunga; Oconee County, Colin Connors
Season overview/playoff outlook: The Indians will hope they can spring an upset on Oconee County, which has been leaking goals all season. The Warriors have managed just one shutout all season, and have given up at least a goal in each of their last nine wins.
Meanwhile, Lumpkin lost four of its last five entering the playoffs, including three straight 2-0 defeats.
No. 3 Riverside Military Academy vs. Model
When: 5 p.m. May 1
Where: Riverside Military Academy, Gainesville
Records: Riverside Military (12-2, 5-1 Region 8-AA), Model (6-7, 5-5 Region 7-AA)
Coaches: Riverside Military, Diego Vacca; Model, Donnie Mendence
Key players: Riverside Military, F Samuel Palmer, M Guillermo Cruz-Cellis, GK Robert Pee
Season overview/playoff outlook: Goalkeeper Robert Pee has provided a strong presence in defense for Region 8-AA winner Riverside Military Academy. The senior recorded six shutouts this season to vault the Eagles into the top five of Class AA. Meanwhile, sophomore Samuel Palmer has scored 17 goals, and Guillermo Cruz-Cellis has added 16 goals for Riverside.
Model has lost four games this season by five goals or more, and finished its regular season by losing four of its last six games.
Lakeview boys at The Walker School
When: 5 p.m. May 1
Where: The Walker School, Marietta
Records: Lakeview Academy (6-8, 5-3 Region 8-A), The Walker School (8-7-1, 4-1 Region 7-A)
Coaches: Lakeview Academy, Philip Chittaro; The Walker School, Gary Blohm
Key players: F Andrew Miller Bell
Season overview/playoff outlook: Lakeview has played a demanding nonregion schedule, and is battle-tested heading into the Class A playoffs. Chittaro and the Lions took on traditional powers North Hall, Johnson and East Hall to get ready for the tougher schools that are sure to come in win-or-go-home soccer.
Andrew Miller Bell has proved a consistent scorer, and should be Lakeview’s biggest threat on goal.
This is Lakeview’s fourth straight year in the state playoffs.