Gainesville junior Douglas Mejia found himself with the ball and an open shot at goal 23 yards out Tuesday night at City Park Stadium. With under two minutes remaining in the Red Elephants semifinal game against St. Pius X, he did the first thing that popped into his mind.
He took a shot.
“It was the first thing I thought,” the midfielder said.
The ball sailed past the Golden Lions goalkeeper and into the back of the net for what would prove to be the winning goal in a 2-1 decision and a ticket back to the state championship game.
Meeting No. 3 Gainesville (19-1-1) in the final will be a familiar face in Woodward Academy, the same team that the Red Elephants defeated 3-2 in 2010 to win their last state title.
This year’s final will be played at a date and time to be determined at City Park Stadium in Gainesville. The Georgia High School Association had scheduled the Class AAA state finals match for Friday, which is the same date as Gainesville’s graduation.
Regardless of when the game is played, the Red Elephants and coach Rick Howard know they will need to play even better to defeat the state’s top-ranked team.
“We’ve got to play a lot better,” Howard said. “We’ve got to take that same grit and determination and work on a lot of stuff.”
It was that grit and determination, Howard said, that made his team stick around after falling behind 1-0 to the defending state champion and second-ranked Golden Lions (17-3-1) in the first half Tuesday.
“They were really taking us with their pressure and possession and knocking us back on our heels,” the coach added. “It’s a credit to the kids. We just knuckled down.”
And, to even the game at 1-1, Gainesville beat a bigger, more physical St. Pius X squad at its own game.
The Golden Lions had scored with 15 minutes remaining in the first half on a corner kick by senior Elias Elias that found the head of a teammate and bounced into the goal.
St. Pius X carried that momentum into the second half, using three early cornerkicks to put pressure on Gainesville keeper Edgar Espinoza, who made six saves and punched the ball out of the box a number of times on set plays.
But Gainesville took back the momentum with 28 minutes remaining when senior Charlie Bryant headed Ricardo Gomez’s corner kick into the top right corner to make it a 1-1 game.
“It picked our team up and gave us a lot of confidence,” Mejia said.
Bryant credited Gomez’s kick with being able to make the successful header. He also noted that assistant coach Elie Viviant’s halftime adjustments enabled Gainesville to get better positioned.
The Red Elephants didn’t need to adjust to the physical play of their opponent, however.
“We knew what to expect,” Bryant said. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
St. Pius X racked up five yellow cards on the night and Gainesville added another as the players only became more intense as the final minutes ticked off.
As at the beginning of the second half, the Golden Lions put the pressure on in the final 10 minutes. But Mejia’s strike with 1:45 remaining put Gainesville firmly in the driver’s seat for the first time all game, and, despite a final minute drawn out by fouls and calls by the officials, the Red Elephants were able to hold on.
For Mejia, a starter on the 2010 championship team, the goal was a unique feeling.
“It’s the most incredible feeling,” he said. “A feeling I can’t get unless something like that happens.”