TOCCOA — Gainesville boys soccer coach Rick Howard doesn’t sound like he’s intimidated by the task at hand.
The Red Elephants (13-4) knocked off Stephens County 3-2 in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs in Toccoa, setting up a matchup against top-ranked Carrollton in the second round Wednesday.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Howard said following Gainesville’s win Friday. “There really are no easy opponents in the playoffs.”
The Red Elephants secured the win with goals from senior forward Yonis Yanes and junior midfielder Russ Puckett early in the second half, giving Gainesville a 3-1 advantage. Then in the final minutes, the game became a matter a numbers.
With the score 3-2, Stephens County (11-6) drew a red card on a foul, meaning it had to play with only 10 players for the final 18 minutes of the game.
Gainesville goalie Phillip Gaines helped assure the game would end in regulation with a save in the 78th minute. He finished the game with seven saves.
Now Gainesville has four days to prepare for a game against Carrollton (15-2-2), which didn’t lose a game in Class AAA all season.
“It’s exciting for us to be able to go on the road and win,” Puckett said. “I think it’s a big factor being able to go on the road and win.”
Maybe one reason that the Red Elephants coach isn’t as concerned about a trip to face the top-ranked Trojans is the fact that his squad is now back to full strength.
Gainesville sophomore midfielder Monish Lahiry was back on the pitch for the first time since sustaining a left ankle injury against North Hall before spring break. With Lahiry on the field, along with fellow midfielder Gabriel Osiorio, the Red Elephants have the tools in place to keep the ball moving fluidly to the forwards.
“They are the engine for us,” Howard said. “When one part is missing we just don’t run as well.”
Lahiry admitted he was still less than 100-percent against the Indians, but said it’s simply of matter of cardiovascular conditioning to regaining his form from before the injury.
“I think I was a little rusty since it was my first game back,” Lahiry said. “But I was able to settle into a groove.”
Still, Lahiry at less than 100-percent makes for a headache for the opposition. Lahiry consistently found the open man and made more than his fair share of Stephens County players trip over their own feet trying to get the better of a one-on-one matchup.
“Monish has a very good arsenal of moves,” Howard said.
Gainesville fed off Lahiry’s return early with seven shots on the goal in the first 13 minutes, and 13 total shots on goal in the first half.
The Red Elephants’ first strike came from freshman forward Merly Velasquez with a nice move around a defender and shot into the back of the net in the 26th minute.
The Indians managed to tie the score at 1-1 in the 46th minute with a goal from Ethan Thomas. Yanes helped Gainesville retake the lead, 2-1, with a goal only two minutes later, followed by its final goal from Puckett in the 51st minute.
Stephens County’s final goal was off the foot of Matt Seib on a free kick in the 60th minute.
With the loss, the Indians’ season is now complete.