Jed Lacey has seen a region title slip away from his team on more than one occasion during his seven-year tenure as Dawson County boys soccer coach.
So, with the Tigers holding a 1-0 lead against East Hall at halftime on Tuesday, Lacey kept repeating the same message to his players: “Forty minutes from a region championship.”
The last steps toward that trophy took longer and turned out to be more difficult than what the coach hoped, but the Tigers eventually found their way there.
David Velasquez buried Dawson County’s sixth consecutive penalty kick in the net and East Hall’s attempt to answer ricocheted off the crossbar, giving the Tigers a 2-1 victory at East Hall Stadium and their first region title in program history.
“We’ve come in second so many times,” Lacey said. “We were in the same position last year against North Hall and lost the last game, went from first (place) to fourth.
“These kids worked so hard to get (back) here, so it’s just a great feeling. It’s tremendous winning our first region championship.”
Dawson County (14-2, 6-1) has gone 14-1 since a season-opening loss to Gainesville, the No. 2 team in Class AAAAA. The Tigers’ lone loss during that stretch came against Buford, 2-0, on March 25.
But the Tigers almost experienced another heartbreaker against the Vikings (6-6-3, 3-4), who were already out of the playoff picture and relegated to playing spoiler a year after reaching the state semifinals.
Dawson County jumped on top 1-0 in the 19th minute when Brandon Lund crossed the ball out wide to the right side of the field, where Randy Schultz collected it and delivered a shot that hooked inside the left post.
That lead held for a full 50 minutes, even though the Vikings regrouped after halftime and dominated the scoring chances in the second half. East Hall narrowly missed a penalty kick opportunity in the 46th minute on a foul that was ruled to be just outside the box, and it had multiple shots sail high of the crossbar.
“We outplayed them in the first half, but they dominated us in the second half,” Lacey said. “The middle was overrun. We were missing some players as (East Hall was), both our center-mids were out, and they were really capitalizing on going after our center-mids."
Bryan Galvez finally scored the equalizer for East Hall on a sliding kick in the 69th minute, when
Tigers goalkeeper Ty Anglin stopped a shot just outside the right post but was unable to secure the ball.
It was the first goal the Tigers had given up since their loss to Buford, breaking a string of four consecutive shutouts.
Neither squad was able to find another goal in regulation or in two five-minute overtime periods, and the game went to a penalty-kick shootout. Both teams proceeded to hit their first five penalty kicks, forcing sudden death.
Velasquez delivered the sixth successful penalty kick in a row for the Tigers, who mobbed Anglin shortly afterward when the Vikings’ ensuing shot caromed off the crossbar and back onto the field.
“In the end, team chemistry is what kept us together,” Tigers senior forward Cole Edwards said. “We stayed as one team, one heartbeat.”
“Everybody hit their PKs, which is massive,” Lacey said. “That’s crunch time, it’s a lot of pressure.”
Dawson County’s girls defeated East Hall 8-1 earlier in the evening and will enter the state playoffs as the region’s No. 2 seed.
Both Dawson County squads will open the state playoffs at home next week, hosting teams from Region 5-AAA.