For everything Rick Howard earned Saturday — a region championship trophy, a milestone victory and a plaque to commemorate it — his players' gestures of respect might be what sticks with the Gainesville boys soccer coach the longest.
Moments after the fifth-ranked Red Elephants defeated Loganville 2-0 at City Park Stadium to secure the Region 8-AAAAA title, Gainesville's players chanted "Howard! Howard! Howard!" while athletic director Wayne Vickery presented the coach with a plaque at midfield in honor of his 250th career win. The Red Elephants capped the celebration by hoisting Howard on their shoulders, before raising their region trophy.
"That was special," Howard said.
"I just thank these guys, especially, for giving me the opportunity to work with them and thank Coach Vickery and Gainesville for giving me the opportunity to coach here and Coach (Mark) Wade for helping me out, things like that. My family has sacrificed a great deal, too."
The latest milestone in Howard's 26-year career as a high school coach came with the help of a player whose own career is just getting started.
Freshman Dunio Turcious broke a scoreless deadlock with 15:24 remaining when he tapped in his first goal as a member of the Red Elephants.
A Gainesville corner kick led to a shot attempt that forced Loganville goalkeeper Andrew Gillman to make a diving stop just inches from the line, but he couldn't recover in time to prevent Turcious from tapping the ball in from the left side of the net.
"I feel really good about it because it was my first goal," Turcious said.
"I'm just really proud of my team. I was just in the right place at the right time."
Gainesville (12-3, 8-0 Region 8-AAAAA) had several quality scoring chances that narrowly missed during the first half. Slippery field conditions didn't help the Red Elephants' cause.
Gainesville was instead forced to rely on its defense, which has given up only four goals during a nine-game winning streak.
"We made a couple (defensive) adjustments at halftime," Howard said. "We talked about getting tucked back in ... but the biggest thing we did in the second half was if we made a mistake, not making it worse by not getting back. I think (in the) second half we kept a lot better shape defensively."
Red Elephants goalkeeper Sergio Mondragon stopped one final Loganville (6-9, 3-6) scoring opportunity with a leaping save — getting knocked to the ground in the process — on a breakaway opportunity with 2:42 remaining.
Junior Estaban Batusta then added Gainesville's insurance goal when he got open down the middle of the field and drilled a shot home with 1:26 left to play.
Although Howard has won state and region titles in the past, he said this victory is one of the most memorable.
"It ranks up there," Howard said. "It ranks real high. (Loganville) made us earn it today.
"These guys are a good group and they persevered."
The Red Elephants close the regular season with a game against Apalachee on Tuesday at City Park Stadium. Gainesville will host the No. 4 seed from Region 7-AAAAA in the opening round of the state playoffs the following week.