As the calendar turns to March, spring sports are already underway and region play will be upon us very soon. For many soccer teams, that region schedule begins this week.
West Hall is coming off its highest accomplishment — a state championship.
The Spartans are off and running this season with a 1-1 record and, despite winning the title in 2015, are sitting at 10th in the state.
West Hall is starting with a strong core of returning players from last year, but lost a few names to the college ranks who helped earn that championship.
East Hall is clinging tight to a 5-0 start with wins over Winder-Barrow, Prince Avenue Christian, Elbert County, White County, Lakeview Academy and North Hall.
The Vikings have already scored 35 goals this season, while only allowing five.
Vikings coach Chris Horton attributes that to key returning players, but says the team is still “trying to figure out how to play a good game right now” due to sprinkling in some younger players.
East Hall forward Leo Toledo is the jumping point for the Vikings.
Toledo, who was The Times’ 2015 All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year, scored four goals against North Hall and Elbert County, and six goals against Prince Avenue.
Toledo is a leader for the team, according to Horton, but it’s not a one-man show.
“A lot, of course, is attributed to the midfield in setting him up with some good opportunities that always make the forward look better,” Horton said.
East Hall’s 2015 campaign for a state title came to a close in the quarterfinal round with a 1-0 loss to Calhoun.
“It’s a motivation for us,” Horton said. “We’ve been to the Final Four before and felt like we had a chance to be there last year. The Elite Eight is where we want to be at a minimum.”
For the Johnson High boys, a 5-0 start has them off to a No. 1 ranking in the state. The Knights have wins over Habersham Central, West Hall, Eastside, Oconee County and Gainesville.
“It’s nice to be recognized at this point in the year,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. “Ultimately, it matters at the end of the season where you’re at. In years past we’ve been the underdog at this point in the year. (The players) feel good rising up to the challenge each and every game knowing that target (on their back) is there.”
Despite the perfect mark, Shirley said the Knights still haven’t played their best soccer and will look to continue as they start region play Tuesday against Monroe Area.
Boosting the Knights offensively is Fabian Abarca, who was named The Times’ 2014 All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year, after scoring 31 goals and adding 10 assists. Last season, Abarca was the Region 8-AAAA Player of the Year with 24 goals.
“He’s on form right now and he’s playing well,” Shirley said. “We expect big things from him. He’s been one of our leaders all four years he’s been here. He’s not only a leader on the field, he’s a leader in the locker room.”
The Knights were bounced from the 2015 state playoffs with a 3-2 loss to Cross Keys, the eventual state runner-up.
In that game, Johnson had a pair of goals waved off due to offsides.
“I think the guys still have a little sour taste in their mouth after that game,” Shirley said. “It is what it is. They know we didn’t play very well in that particular game and it kind of bit us.”
Johnson will be clashing with East Hal on March 11 in what is setting up to be a great match as both teams are undefeated.
Horton, the Vikings’ coach, said he’s not sure that match will determine much about the best of the county.
“I don’t know if you can say who the team is in Hall County (from that match),” Horton said. “I feel like any team can beat you in this county. That’s why we’ve been so successful is because of the local competition.”
As the season moves on to the region schedule, Shirley said the Knights will be looking to get past Chestatee, Buford and North Oconee, which he said are “pretty solid” teams.
Chestatee is coming off a season where its boys made it to the state playoffs, but lost in the first round, and its girls made a run to the quarterfinals.
North Hall missed the tournament with both teams in 2015.
At Gainesville High, the Lady Red Elephants are adjusting under a new head coach, who has led the program once before.
“It’s been great, a big change,” said Lady Red Elephants coach Shelly Garner. “When I was there 18 years ago, girls soccer wasn’t as well known. The talent level has increased tremendously. It’s great being a Red Elephant again. There’s nothing better to me.”
Garner helped begin the program she’s now in charge of in 1994. She coached that first girls team until 1998.
Now, as she comes back to the spot she left nearly 18 years ago, Garner said the talent level is tremendous and she’s “super impressed” with the work ethic of her team members.
“It’s been a good group that wants to do well, works hard and asks for more all the time,” Garner said.
The Lady Red Elephants (3-1, No. 8 Class AAAAA) are trying to shake off a curse of sorts, which has kept Gainesville from advancing past the first round of the state playoffs in recent seasons.
“We’ve talked about that a bit,” Garner said. “It’s like a first-round curse.”
Garner said the players will bring up the curse from time-to-time, but she won’t bring it up to them.
Despite being “new” to the program again, Garner said there hasn’t been much of an adjustment period.
“I’m sure there have been some changes the girls have had to become accustomed to,” Garner said. “A good many of them I coached when they were young, so they kind of knew my style. It wasn’t too much of a shock.”
Historically, according to Garner, Heritage, Apalachee and Loganville will be hurdles for Gainesville as it makes its way through the region schedule.
The Lady Red Elephants don’t need much motivation as the season moves closer to that tough region schedule.
“They pretty much fuel their own fire,” Garner said. “They’re a motivated group. They want to make it as far as they can. Of course, if you ask them all right now what the ultimate goal is, it’s a state championship. They want to break that curse.”
Garner said she’s trying to keep it positive for now, “game at a time, practice at a time, day at a time. It’s still early.”
The Gainesville boys are looking to make it back to a state title run after being put out in the second round in 2015.
Flowery Branch is another contender for the Region 8-AAAAA girls title.
“It seems like every year in our region there are five or six teams close for the top four,” Flowery Branch coach Katie Scali said. “We can’t take anybody lightly.”
The Lady Falcons have gotten off to a 1-3 start after missing the state playoffs for the first time since 2010.
“There’s an expectation that we’re always going to make playoffs,” Scali said. “We still had three or four games when we knew we weren’t going to get there (last year). It was a different mindset at the end of the season.”
This season, Scali is working with a young group with only two seniors on the varsity team.
“We’re trying to put the most competitive group out there,” Scali said. “People are playing in positions they haven’t before.”
Scali said she and her coaching staff are trying to get her young team to “take risks.” She said the group is a group of good girls, which has translated to wanting to be perfect on the field.
“They’re very technically sound, but they’re too uptight because they want to be perfect,” Scali said. “We’re trying to get them to go faster and mess up rather than slower and perfectly. When they get in the game, it’s not as smooth. We’re challenging them to work so hard they mess up.
The matchup between Gainesville and Flowery Branch won’t come until April 1, but the region schedule begins on Friday with Apalachee for the Lady Falcons.
Apalachee, Loganville, Heritage and Clarke Central are all games that will present a challenge for Flowery Branch in region play, according to Scali.
The boys squad for Flowery Branch made the playoffs last year, but fell in the first round.
Riverside Military Academy is off to a 2-1-1 start, which has them marked at No. 5 in the state for Class AA.
The Eagles lost six seniors from last season’s roster, which included the leading scorer, goal keeper and two starting defenders.
Riverside was ousted from last season’s state tournament with a 4-0 loss to Pace Academy in the quarterfinals.
The Lakeview Academy Lions ended a run in the first round of the state playoffs in 2015, but are off to a 2-2-1 start.
The Lady Lions made it to the second round last season.
In 2016, they’re off to a 4-1 start.