WATKINSVILLE — Hobbled by an injured left knee, Juan Arbelaez’s ability to play for West Hall in Thursday’s state semifinal game against Oconee County was in question.
Questionable, that is, to everyone but him.
The West Hall senior standout entered the game with 25 minutes left in the first half, got his feet under him and with 10 minutes and 42 seconds remaining in the game showed why he’s a standout.
His right-footed shot into the left corner of Oconee’s net gave the third-ranked Spartans a 1-0 lead and momentum that would carry them to a 2-0 win in Watkinsville and a spot in the Class AAA state finals.
“I wanted to play,” Arbelaez said. “I felt good and wanted to do my best and help my team.”
“We needed to see with warm-ups if (Arbelaez) could to it,” West Hall coach Wolfgang Jager said. “I don’t know what to say other than he’s an inspiration for the team and he’s a leader for the team.”
That leadership was needed late in the game after a back-and-forth first 70 minutes dominated by defense and physical play. Combined, West Hall and Oconee County accounted for 18 fouls with the Warriors also racking up five yellow cards.
“Our defense handled things great,” said Jager of his team earning its eighth-straight shutout. “And it speaks well of our team that we were able to do what we did against a high-powered team like Oconee.”
The fourth-ranked Warriors (15-5) entered Thursday’s game on a 10-game win streak in which they allowed only two goals while scoring 37.
The Spartans were up to the challenge of not only defending a potentially high-powered offense, but one proficient in scoring off headers.
“My guys went up in the air and fought,” Jager said. “They wanted to score off throw-ins and headers and we didn’t let them.”
West Hall’s Jamie King was an integral part of that.
The senior goalkeeper had four saves in the first half, seven for the game, including back-to-back saves with 20 minutes to go in the first half on scoring attempts off headers by the Warriors.
While was the defense was doing its part to keep Oconee off the board, the offense was pressuring the Warriors goal thanks to the efforts of Rudy Vazquez.
The senior forward ran his way to multiple scoring opportunities in the first half and the attention he was given by the Oconee defense because of it, opened up shots for his teammates in the second half.
Even though his teammates were trying to open things up for him.
“I was trying to get the ball and play quick,” Arbelaez said. “I was trying to open space for Rudy because he was 100 percent and playing like it, and I was not.”
Regardless of level Arbelaez was able to play at; it was his play that made the difference and his shot that gave his team the edge.
“His instinct to put that ball in the left corner was beautiful,” Jager said. “If he’s on the field and only 70 percent, he’s still valuable.”
Chandler Ligas scored West Hall’s other goal with 7:41 left in the game when he rebounded a botched save by Oconee’s keeper and put it in.
West Hall will face St. Pius X on Saturday for the state title.