Elie Viviant has never considered himself to be the best soccer player. But chess — that’s his forte, with City Park Stadium acting as the board this season.
City Park’s pitch is known to many who pass through as one of the widest in the state, and Gainesville utilized every inch of it in Tuesday’s semifinal match.
Viviant, the Gainesville High math teacher and first-year head coach for the Red Elephants, fixated on the fitness of top-ranked Dalton, but the Catamounts temporarily thwarted the Red Elephants’ tactics of keeping things well outside the box. But only after Dalton exerted all of its resources at the midfield position and both teams headed for overtime, Viviant knew his team had its opponent in check.
With a little left in the tank, Cristian Rodriguez delivered checkmate in the form of two overtime goals to jolt Gainesville to the state finals for the first time since 2012.
“They were pushing and we were bending,” Viviant said of Dalton. “I felt we would break at some point, but it was really important for us to keep some legs so that we could do the last push. And I know that when Dalton tied in the second half, we were the ones with the chance after that. They gave all they had. Their two center mids were so tired. ...I felt like in overtime we definitely were fresh, fresher than them. It’s little things like that.”
The third-ranked Red Elephants (19-2), however, now hit the road for the first time this postseason. But for what it’s worth, Viviant said they will be sporting the home colors when they play No. 2 Chattahoochee (18-2-1) for the Class 6A championship at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Macon.
Viviant is optimistic the same City Park-inspired style of play will reveal itself on the traditionally wide field at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium.
“Chattahoochee has an advantage in the fact that it’s turf. They play on turf, we don’t play on turf,” Viviant said. “Then we have an advantage in the fact that it is a really wide field. And that’s usually a tough field. ...It’s actually a real soccer field. So give-or-take, I don’t know who is going to get the last advantage, but we’ll have a little one.”
Senior Wilson Velasquez feels the real advantage lies in a stronger will to win. The Red Elephants’ road leading up to their defeat of top-seeded and highly favored Dalton was a clear indication. Viviant's group exceeded his expectations after capturing the region crown and advancing past the elite eight round. On Tuesday, they dismantled a Cougars team that cruised to three consecutive state titles from 2013-2015.
For the three starting seniors — Velasquez, Brandon Reyna and four-year veteran Derian Alarcon — it’s also one last chance to leave their marks.
“It means a lot to us as seniors, knowing we’ve made it this far and that we’ll be able to play in the final. We gotta give everything out on the field (tonight) and see who takes it, either them or us,” said Velasquez.
Junior Cristian Jaimes, the youngest of three brothers to play for Gainesville, is hoping to add another ring to showcase at the dinner table.
Eldest brother Irving Salgado, in his senior season, scored 21 goals and converted a penalty kick in the Class AAA state championship that boosted Gainesville to its most recent state championship in 2010. Middle brother Ricardo Gomez played in the 2012 championship, and despite falling short, went on to win a national title with Tyler Junior College (Texas) and currently plays for University of South Florida.
Jaimes said his eldest brother will be watching from the stands tonight.
“We’ll all have rings. If we win it this Saturday, I feel like this is a good thing for all of us (brothers), and I’ll make them proud,” Jaimes said.
The Red Elephants’ gritty defense that has only given up 16 goals this season faces another tough test in Chattahoochee, which has averaged 4.2 goals during its 11-match win streak and has outscored playoffs opponents by a combined score of 19-1.
The Cougars, who are coached by Les Meenan ranked fourth in the nation, are looking to top a 2016 campaign in which they climbed to the top of the national rankings with an unbeaten mark before a stunning 2-0 loss to Parkview in the semifinals.
“They don’t really have a weakness,” Viviant said. “It’s going to be a battle there, and sometimes it’s about the post — sometimes it goes out, and sometimes it goes in. ...We are not going to win easily, and they are not going to win easily. Whoever wins, it is going to be hard for them.”
Last October, the former top assistant Viviant succeeded Rick Howard to take over a program that won 250 games and one state title in two championship game appearances under the long-tenured coach.
Viviant acknowledges that while his coaching methods are a bit contrasting to Howard’s, the vision to preserve a winning standard at Gainesville is much apparent. The Red Elephants settling for anything less than a championship trophy, Viviant said, would be selling themselves short.
The Red Elephants won and lost against Woodward Academy in their previous title game appearances. Gainesville claimed the Class 3A title in penalty kicks 2010 to cap an undefeated (19-0) season. Two years later, Woodward got payback in the form of a 2-0 shutout at City Park Stadium — that one still lingering in Viviant’s mind.
A win tonight would take care of that.
“I’ve been one time to the final where I won, one time to final where I lost,” Viviant said. “To win the semifinal doesn’t treat me much. But we’ll wait until Saturday night to see if we really had a good season or not.”