At first glimpse, a boys state playoff matchup between Class AAAA soccer powers Johnson and Dalton would be expected in the championship game, or at least the semifinals.
But thanks to the bracket setup that has talent-loaded Regions 8-AAAA and 7-AAAA playing in the second round, the two state-ranked teams will meet on the pitch in the round of 16 on Wednesday, rather than on a bigger stage deeper in the playoffs.
And they’re not alone either. Four other Hall County teams will play ranked opponents in the second round, making it certain that a few state championship contenders are certain to fall earlier than wanted in the postseason.
“It’s just the way the bracket fell this year, and there will be some good soccer played in the second round,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. “A big win here, and that’s a lot of momentum to carry into the quarterfinals and even further into the tournament.”
That is, if there’s more tournament action to be had for the area teams.
The fourth-ranked Knights’ game against the top-ranked Catamounts (18-0) is one of several attention-grabbing second-round matchups that go through Hall County on Wednesday. Chestatee, ranked third in Class AAAA, hosts No. 5 Northwest Whitfield at War Eagle Stadium. Class AAA’s third-ranked West Hall invites former top-10 team and perennial force Oconee County to Oakwood, and Class AAAAA’s sixth-ranked Gainesville heads to Marietta to do battle with No. 10 Pope.
Riverside Military is also in on the action. After a first-round rout of Bremen, the No. 10 Eagles host third-ranked Lovett this week. East Hall remains alive after its 1-0 upset of No. 2 Blessed Trinity in the first round Friday, and visits No. 8 North Murray this week.
One the girls side, Class AAA’s second-ranked Buford hosts No. 8 Oconee County; and seventh-ranked Jackson County hosts No. 4 Woodward Academy in Jefferson.
It makes for one of North Georgia’s busiest and most heralded weeks of soccer, and clearly a playoff round that will separate contenders from early-round exits.
“We just have to continue to play our game and not change too much,” Shirley said. “What we’ve done so far has gotten us to this point.”
Shirley’s Knights may have drawn the toughest card of them all.
Johnson’s first trip to the third round since 2006 depends on trying to pull an upset over a Dalton team that has outscored opponents 110-7 this season and has activated the 10-goal mercy rule on five different occasions.
It’s not often that the Knights (15-2-2) are considered an underdog, but Wednesday is a rare exception. Shirley says a win over the Catamounts would be monumental to the program, which already has a storied history over the past decade.
“My guys thrive in the underdog role,” Shirley said. “They like to get out and prove people wrong. Prove people that they can do anything they set out to accomplish.”
Johnson’s region rival and the only team to beat the Knights in region play during the regular season is in a similar situation Wednesday, albeit not at the same magnitude. Chestatee, the Region 8-AAAA champion, must defeat a talented Northwest Whitfield team to secure its first-ever quarterfinals appearance in school history.
Hailing from the same region as Dalton, the Bruins (14-5) offer more than handful for the War Eagles.
Much like Hall County’s teams, they plays a quick, touch-and-go offensive game that relies on speed and precise ball-handling. It’s a tough style to contain, but very similar to what Chestatee (17-2) has already seen this season.
“All the teams we’ve played that have been at the top have those styles where they’re quick to the ball and they move the ball really well,” War Eagles coach Mike Herrin said. “They have creative forwards with incredible speed up top — that’s like Johnson, West Hall and Gainesville.”
Regardless, Herrin has his team playing with confidence despite the limited playoff history. Should Chestatee win Wednesday, it has a chance to avenge a second-round loss last season to Mary Persons in the quarterfinals Saturday.
It would be the War Eagles’ first road game of the playoffs, so the team is making sure to take advantage of a supportive home crowd while they still have it.
“The student body is excited and wants to come out and carry these guys on,” Herrin said. “It’s nice having that home-field crowd that gets electrified and gets you up for big games.
“Kids respond to that.”
Other teams, such as Gainesville, have to battle more defensive-based squads to get into the third round. Pope, the Region 7-AAAAA champion, hasn’t blown anyone out this year — the Greyhounds are averaging just over two goals a game — but has limited opponents to a goal or fewer in 12 games.
Riverside’s second-round opponent, Lovett, carries a deceiving record that doesn’t match its No. 3 ranking in Class AA. Despite being just a game over .500 on the season, the Lions (7-6-3) have spent the season battling a region that includes private school powers in Westminster and Greater Atlanta Christian, which hold the top spots in the rankings.