Pace Academy managed to do something almost unheard of against a No. 2 ranked East Hall boys soccer team that had literally run roughshod over opponents this offseason.
A tested Pace Academy back line was the remedy for the insanely explosive Vikings attacking front, while the match’s lone goal scored by Avery Herman off a set piece in 49th minute was enough to send the two-seeded Vikings home a match shy of a repeat state title game appearance by a 1-0 decision at Vikings Stadium.
The Knights, who their coach Lucas Moreno noted had previously faced opponents with similar attacking pieces in recent weeks, successfully corralled the Vikings’ trademark speed that has outscored the opposition by a combined score of 17-2 through the first three rounds.
The Vikings who started with a slew of near goals to start the match and outshot the three seeds 6-3 in the first half, couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net. Sophomore scoring phenom Surgio Turcios who notched three hat tricks this postseason, was yielded to a single shot on target for the contest.
“Coming into this game, we knew this team was extremely talented, whether that was their No. 8 (Sergio Turcios) or No. 9 (Carlos Castrejon),” said Moreno.
“So our Ability to stay composed and keep a shape, is what allowed us to have the success. Not to go off the 1-on-1 dribble they look to beat you on, but to stay compact and tight. So that played a big difference for us.”
It was slim pickings for the Vikings In the second half, though came within inches of scoring the equalizer with less than three minutes to play. A corner kick landed at the feet of Freddy Rebollar four yards in front of the net, but his attempt ricocheted off the crossbar, leaving Pace Academy’s 6-foot-9 goalkeeper Jonathon Rushton in disbelief.
East Hall coach Chris Horton strongly felt his players controlled the middle of the pitch well enough in order to get that breakthrough moment after falling behind 1-0 in the second half, but said it just came down to a failure to capitalize.
“We had opportunities, we just didn’t take them,” said East Hall coach Chris Horton. "We missed point-blank shots a few times.”
It was a semifinal with an abundance of chippy moments, a tug-a-war battle that was held scoreless through the half.
Both squads played like one with clear intent — state championship or bust — as the student section created a commotion of banging drums and cowbells.
The Vikings, visibly light on their feet, used their fleet footed and agile strikers to fire the first shot as early as the third minute. While feeding off the rowdy and vocal home crowd, the hosts rocketed their first three shots toward goal, one deflected by a Knights center back seven yards in front of the net and two that sailed over the crossbar — both taken by Brandon Callahan.
Pace Academy’s few looks on goal came off the set piece, it’s first in the 11th minute. A header that one-hopped into the back of the net was quickly dismissed by an offsides and handball called simultaneously.
The momentum quickly turned to the Knights’ favor after intermission with a flurry of shots, and East Hall goalkeeper Daniel Carrillo was clearly tested. A sliding kick save and punch by Carrillo fended off two rapid shots from Pace Academy, but the second from Harrison Husk initiated the corner that granted the Knights the lead for good.
Herman headed in the corner kick from Tim Phillips for the one-goal advantage. It was a spark Moreno said was the one they needed to regain their composure moving forward.
"They were feeding off the crowd, we needed to make adjustments," Moreno said. "But more than anything, we needed to be mentally focused on what we had to do. Gave them a little bit of a spark, and that translated into a much different second half, in which we started challenging 50-50 balls, shutting down the gaps that allowed them create goal-scoring opportunities in the first half."
A beautifully executed slide tackle deep inside the 18-yard box by Pace Academy center-back Sammy Lettes shut down a potential scoring look for Turcios, who nearly found an opening 10 yards from the right post with minutes left to play.
Pace Academy (15-7) clashes with top-seeded Westminster this Friday at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, at a time to be determined. The Wildcats go for their 12th title overall, while the Knights look to capture only their second championship in program history (2006).
Despite the loss, the Vikings look to be a program primed for future success as they return all but two rostered players, including the sophomore scoring tandem of Turcios and Carlos Castrejon.
Horton could only remind his players of the quality season they’ve had which includes a 17-5 record and a second-straight state semifinal appearance in the playoffs.
“It just didn’t go our way today, but we’ll meet and we’ll get what we gotta address for the next season and get better,” Horton said.