For Gainesville boys soccer coach Rick Howard, the gameplan for his team doesn’t change much, regardless of what’s at stake.
At 7:30 tonight his second-ranked Red Elephants (18-0) will face Woodward Academy in College Park for the Class AAA state title, and as was the case in the quarterfinals against Perry and the semifinals against Southeast Whitfield, team defense is the key.
His mentality: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
“(Woodward) is good,” Howard said, “they’re very good and the have a great offensive attack.
“They have two real good forwards who are going to put us under a lot of pressure. We have to make sure we’re organized defensively and rely on everyone, not just one person.”
Woodward (18-3), under coach Matt Holmes, made it this far through what Howard referred to as the “bracket of death.”
They beat Peach County, LaGrange, No. 5 Carrollton and then in the semifinals, topped the No. 1 team in both Class AAA and the All-Classification poll St. Pius X.
On the season, the War Eagles are averaging 5.4 goals per game — diminished somewhat because of scoring only one goal against both Carrollton and St. Pius — and are allowing less than a goal a game.
They have 14 shutouts on the season including three straight in the playoffs.
“They are a well-coached team that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Howard said. “Their coach does a great job of adjusting and it’s going to be a tough game for us.”
The good news is that for Gainesville, being in tough games is nothing new.
The Red Elephants advanced to the state title tilt by beating three ranked opponents in three straight games. They won two in overtime and have allowed only two goals in their four playoff games.
“The guys are excited,” Howard said, “and confidence-wise, we’re good.
“It’s going to come down to whatever team can keep their composure and keep their legs under them. The team that can achieve those two things is the one that’s going to be successful in this game.”
As for Howard, he will be coaching on the sidelines for the first time since his team’s 3-1 overtime win against Riverwood on May 4.
“There are nerves more because we’re facing the unknown than anything else,” Howard said. “But like my team I’m ready for this. We think we have a good plan and while I’m in no way going to guarantee a win, we’re confident in our abilities to compete.”