The 2012 East Hall boys soccer season was filled with firsts. The program’s first region championship game appearance, first home playoff game, first playoff win, first trip to the state quarterfinals.
It was a run that didn’t escape the eye of the Vikings community.
“We had a big rise up with our student body, they really showed up,” East Hall principal Jeff Cooper said. “We had a couple of games where we had a lot more people than we’d ever had.”
Each region and state playoff game seemed to draw more people, including some who didn’t even know much about the sport. Cooper said he saw three or four faculty members who hadn’t been interested in the sport before keep coming back to watch as the Vikings continued to win, eventually finishing with a 14-4-1 record.
The East Hall principal was impressed most by the team-centered style of play, one which Vikings coach Chris Horton had been working on all year with the players.
“I really enjoyed watching this year,” Cooper said. “The product in the past had been a few key individuals, but to see them share the ball, that was fun to watch.”
For Horton’s efforts in leading the team to an historic season, he is The Times Boys Soccer Coach of the Year.
A good season for the Vikings wasn’t totally unexpected after finishing with a winning record in 2011, but East Hall displayed early on in the year that this was more than a gradual improvement. The team rattled off four consecutive shutouts to open the season, including three on the road, and outscored the four opponents 22-0.
The Vikings then fell just short at Class AAA Johnson and fought West Hall to a 2-2 tie, scoring twice in the waning moments of the game, before finishing the regular season 7-1.One of the wins, over Dawson County, went to penalty kicks still at 0-0 before East Hall pulled out the win over another of the region’s top programs.
“They have a lot of talent, probably the best talent in the region, and Chris does a good job with them,” said Dawson County coach Jed Lacey. “They’re probably one of the classiest teams in the state.
“We’re rivals, and probably the two best team in 8-AA. It’s a rivalry, but a classy rivalry.”
After the rivalry win, East Hall started their historic postseason run after holding off East Jackson 1-0 in the semifinals to reach the Region 8-AA title game.
After a 2-0 loss to North Oconee to finish as the region runner-up, the Vikings hosted their first ever playoff game in style, cruising to a 4-0 win over River Ridge in front of a growing crowd of East Hall fans. The style of play that Cooper and the fans enjoyed seeing was also the style that led to so much success for the Vikings during the season.
Horton said during the season that his team was best suited to playing possession-style soccer due to his small but quick roster.
“They play very professionally, very close together,” Lacey said. “We’re a fast break team, they’re more possession, more methodical.
“It’s hard to stop.”
It resulted in a lot of scoring. East Hall recorded 85 goals for the season, with three players scoring over 20. And Junior Saul Lopez (23 goals), sophomore Jason Mendoza (22) and junior Julio Avila (team-high 24) will all be back to power the team once again.
Horton said that the 7-4 comeback win at Thomasville in the second round of the state playoffs revealed a difference between this team and years past. He said previous years’ teams would have folded after falling behind, but not the 2012 team.
The 5-1, quarterfinal loss to Lovett in Gainesville ended the record-breaking run for the Vikings. But, with so many players returning beyond even the top goal scorers, the future looks bright for East Hall.
“I expect to have a quality team next year, again,” Horton said after the loss to Lovett. “We have a lot of starters returning.”
And, Cooper said, with an exciting, successful team on the pitch, the popularity of East Hall soccer is only growing.
Lacey doesn’t see the Vikings slowing down anytime soon, even with the move up to Class AAA.
“East Hall’s going to be one of the big boys for years to come,” he said.