Whenever Fabian Abarca or any of his Johnson High teammates need a pick-me-up during a rough practice or a slow game night, Brian Shirley has just two words to say to them.
That’s the team that topped the Knights in last year’s state quarterfinals, despite Johnson having two goals waved off for offsides, including what would have been a last-minute equalizer by Abarca.
“Every time we slack off, he’ll go ‘Cross Keys, Cross Keys, Cross Keys all over again,’” said the senior. “That motivates us, because that game really hurt. It ended our run and what we wanted to do.”
And now Abarca, supported by a host of dangerous attacking options, is entering his senior year with the goal of avenging last season’s frustrating finish.
The top-ranked Knights (7-0, 2-0 Region 8-AAAA) have already shown strong form in this year’s campaign, scoring 37 goals in just seven matches. Abarca has accounted for 16 of those strikes, including a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over local rival Gainesville High just a week ago.
Shirley has allowed his senior dynamo to have the freedom to roam the front half of the pitch, collecting and serving balls through the midfield rather than being left alone as an isolated striker. It’s a strategy that Abarca’s teammates have embraced.
“He’s a helper guy for us,” said sophomore David Flores. “He’s the type of guy who can be in all of the places you need him to be. If someone doesn’t get to (the ball), he will.”
Whereas Abarca can still finish off lightning-quick goals with his feet or his head, he’s taken to becoming an outlet for others to latch onto. The senior has provided the direct assist on at least five goals so far this year, including an excellent through ball Friday night against region rival Chestatee, which allowed teammate Alex Penaloza to put the Knights up 5-1.
Abarca said this week that his teammates are all fighting for playing time, and that no one has a guaranteed starting spot in Shirley’s team.
“This team is more energetic, more united,” said Abarca. “We’re all in the same level, the same work rate. We’re intense when we play, because we want to be the best.”
Shirley has pushed his team to become quicker on the ball, coaching them to play 2-3 touch soccer, which allows the Knights to speed up or slow down the tempo, as needed. Veteran players like Penaloza, Bryant Anaya and Edgar Torres have been crucial to that effort, as well as young talent like sophomore Flores.
The Knights got off to a hot start over the offseason, winning 7v7 tournaments at Habersham Central and Oconee County.
“The work started this summer,” said Shirley. “We made it a goal to win both summer titles, they came in the offseason conditioning hard at work, and you start building that commitment in the summer. The sweat, the heat and the humidity, it broke the young guys in.”
Abarca is used to the pressure. As a sophomore, he helped lead Johnson to a state title appearance in 2014, in which the Knights fell 2-0 to perennial champions Dalton.
And in last year’s campaign, he was a one-man wrecking machine to push Johnson through the playoffs.
What kind of Fabian will we see this year?
“Hopefully the Fabian we’ve been seeing up until now,” said Shirley. “Assisting others, scoring goals, continuing to do what we all know he can do, be the dynamic player he can be in the final third. I know he wants to finish off a great career here and get to the final game in May. Those things motivate him.”
He’s also motivated by that rough loss to Cross Keys, where a promising junior year turned sour.
“The after feeling, it’s bad,” said Abarca. “As a soccer player, you never want to lose… It’s just a bad taste, it’s a bad feeling. We turn that into an expectation that we want to win every game.”
Notes: Senior defender Isaac Henry is out for the rest of his senior season after suffering a broken right leg during a recent game against Oconee County. Henry underwent surgery on Monday, according to Shirley. Shirley said the goal is for Henry to walk out on Senior Night to be recognized.