The East Hall boys soccer team had to overcome a lot during the season, including a rash of injuries and a history short on postseason success.
The No. 8-ranked Vikings overcame the injuries and the history, but Friday night they couldn’t overcome Lovett in the third round of the playoffs at Viking Stadium.
The No. 9 Lions (12-6-1) knocked East Hall out of rhythm and didn’t let up on the way to a 5-1 win in Gainesville to advance to the Class AA state semifinals against the Blessed Trinity/Calhoun winner on Tuesday.
With the loss, the Vikings’ (14-4-1) historic season, in which the team went to its first ever region championship, first home playoff game, first playoff win and first trip to the quarterfinals, is finished.
“We made the school proud, and we made school history as well,” said East Hall senior Ricardo Rosales.
It didn’t mean the loss wasn’t disappointing, especially because of how competitive it was in the first half.
“Early on we had as many chances on goal as they did,” said East Hall coach Chris Horton. “Their shots went in, our didn’t.”
Lovett was aggressive from the get-go, but East Hall worked the offside trap well, and the Lions were called offsides eight times in the first half.
Each side had chances early. Vikings goalkeeper Abel Olvera saved a header in the ninth minute, and on the offensive side East Hall just missed a chip shot over the keeper’s head soon after.
But, unlike most of the games this season, the Lions didn’t give the Vikings time to play their possession-style soccer that had served them so well.
“They hustled every ball, and that really threw us off,” Rosales said. “And when we did get passes in rhythm it wasn’t enough, we should have done it sooner.”
Instead, Lovett finally broke through with 13:26 remaining in the first half on a free kick that Lions freshman Wes Haley headed past the keeper to put the visitors ahead 1-0.
Lovett doubled the lead less than 10 minutes later on sophomore Andrew Kring’s strike over the head of the keeper to put the Lions ahead 2-0 at the half.
It wasn’t the first time East Hall had been down 2-0 and come back. Horton remembered a game against West Hall early in the season when his squad rallied with two goals to tie, one of the games in which the sixth-year coach realized just what kind of team he had.
“That was when they realized that they could come back,” Horton said. “And we were down at Thomasville 1-0 early and came back to win.
“In the past, that was it.”
To reach the quarterfinals the Vikings rallied from a 1-0 deficit at Thomasville and exploded on offense for a 7-4 win. But with Lovett, the No. 4 seed from the tough and talented Region 6-AA, East Hall found itself up against a team that has had to play in peak form all season just to reach the postseason.
“We play a very tough schedule,” said Lovett coach Jimmy Jewell. “And we had to beat (No. 2 Greater Atlanta Christian) and get help just to get in.”
So the Lions weren’t going to take the second half lightly.
Instead they struck again six minutes into the half on a shot by junior Kyler Allen, his first of two goals on the day. Junior Harrison Leeson also scored in between Allen’s goals, and with 16 minutes remaining in the game Lovett had a 5-0 advantage.
Still, East Hall would not quit, recording five shots in the final 20 minutes. With just four second remaining, Luis Salazar broke free and scored just before the final whistle.
Four seconds later the most successful season in the history of East Hall boys soccer program was over, as were the high school careers’ of the 10 seniors, including Rosales.
“It was a tremendous season, and we took it game by game,” Rosales said. “I’m proud of the whole team. We got hurt and played through injuries.”
Horton said it was a special team, one that finally broke through a stretch of first round playoff losses. But the Vikings coach doesn’t expect much of a drop-off next season.
“I expect to have a quality team next year, again,” he added. “We have a lot of started returning.”
And the returning players now know what it’s like to not jut reach state, but to go deep.