Last year’s Class 3A state championship game ended in heartbreak for the East Hall boys soccer team, which suffered a 3-2 loss against Decatur in Macon.
But the lessons learned along the way have the Vikings on the doorstep of a repeat appearance.
East Hall dominated Tattnall County 6-0 on Saturday in blustery Gainesville to punch its ticket to the semifinal round for the second-straight season. Vikings coach Chris Horton called it the team’s most dominant win so far this postseason, one that was made possible by his players’ superior depth and experience.
“Our depth is really a great advantage for us,” Horton said. “That’s a credit to how hard our kids work in practice, but it’s also because we’ve been here so many times. This is our third-straight trip to the quarterfinals, and our kids have been in these situations before.”
East Hall (17-4) will host No. 2 seed Pace Academy on Tuesday at a time to be determined after winning the GHSA-mandated coin flip to see which of the second-seeded teams would host.
Vikings sophomore Sergio Turcios produced a hat trick Saturday, his third in as many playoff games.
“He’s one of those players that has an instinct for scoring when he has the ball,” Horton said. “If we run and play the way we’re supposed to, Sergio is going to have plenty of chances to score.”
That he did, starting with an impressive play in the fifth minute.
After fielding a pass from defender Giezi Barrientos near midfield, Turcios kicked the ball downfield and around a Warriors defender before racing behind him in open space. Tattnall County’s goalie charged his run at the net, only for Turcios to bank in a shot off the left-hand post.
Jairo Valdez subbed into the game shortly after and scored a goal from the left side in the 13th minute despite several players appearing to be offside.
“A big key today was our kids off the bench,” Horton said. “I felt like we wore them down with our subs.”
The Warriors (11-5-3), who are in their first year as a program, didn’t manage a shot until the 18th minute and rarely posed a serious threat to East Hall’s back line, which drew praise from Horton for its staunch defense of the net.
Six minutes before halftime, Turcios put the Vikings ahead 3-0 with a free kick that fooled Tattnall County’s goalie and whipped back toward the near post at the last second.
He picked up right where he left off just 25 seconds after the break, flashing some fancy footwork to complete his hat trick. Turcios received a beautiful through ball about 20 yards from the net, dribbled past the charging goalie toward the left side of the net and faked out a defender running him down to create a chip shot from inside the 6-yard box.
Carlos Castrejon (52nd minute) and Brandon Callahan (74th) both converted penalty kicks after Warriors’ infractions inside the 18-yard box.
Having four players find the net in a quarterfinal match illustrates a difference Horton sees between this year’s squad and the one that came one goal short of a state championship last season.
“Every field player in our starting 10 has scored this year, even the guys on our back line,” the coach said. “I think the assist is more important than the goal anyway, and all of our starters have an assist, as well.”
East Hall finished with 23 shots and 10 on target.
The heavy rains that rolled in during the final 12 minutes of the contest didn’t come close to dampening the Vikings’ spirits.
Not after their third convincing win of these playoffs, during which they’ve outscored opponents 17-2. They’re now just one win away from making it back to the state title game, a goal they’ve talked about all season long.
“We’ve gotten them to take it one game at a time while still doing the things we need to do to get back there,” Horton said. “We’ve had our ups and downs this season, but all that matters is that you get there at the end. It’s how you finish.”