Of course it was going to be Fabian Abarca to lead top-ranked Johnson to the Class AAAA state semifinals.
Abarca broke a scoreless draw with 14:01 remaining after Bryant Anaya sailed a ball from the other end of the pitch over the Southeast Whitfield defense for a 1-0 win in Friday’s state quarterfinal game at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in Oakwood.
“I picked my head up and I saw a defender coming full sprint at me,” Abarca said. “When that happens, I have to say, that’s a piece of cake for me. All I have to do is tap the ball and (the defender) is gone.”
Abarca beat the defender and was one-on-one with the keeper. It was a sharp angle, but Abarca slid the ball under the outstretched goalkeeper to score on the short side and send the Knights (19-0-1) back to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
“It was a relief,” Abarca said. “It was a relief for me and for my team. That (goal) took a lot of pressure from us and then we starting playing our game. That goal was huge.”
Despite numerous chances from Johnson throughout the game, Southeast Whitfield’s defenders always seemed to come up with the answer. As the clock ran down, it looked like the Raiders may just find a way to leave Oakwood with a win.
“We had chance after chance, hit two crossbars,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. “It was like, are we going to have one of those games where we own the stat sheet, but we’re not going to come out on the good side of it?
“But man the guys fought. We felt like it was coming. We just had to be patient."
That patience paid off as the backline for Johnson held firm and freshman goalkeeper Cooper Bowen made a couple spectacular saves early on to keep the game scoreless until Abarca was able to break loose.
Next up for Johnson is a home semifinal matchup on Tuesday against Buford, a team they narrowly beat 1-0 in a home contest on March 18. Buford topped Grady 2-1 in its quarterfinal matchup on Friday.
“We have to come out and continue to play our game,” Shirley said. “Stay hungry, stay humble and go in and try to achieve our goals.”