Pouring rain quickly turned the field at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium into a marsh less than 20 minutes into Friday’s state quarterfinal game.
Second-ranked Johnson’s typically fast-paced offense stalled out and never looked the same against Cairo the rest of the way.
Luckily for the Knights, Fabian Abarca had done all the damage the team needed in the first 10 minutes.
Abarca struck for goals in the 4th and 10th minute, and the Knights held on for a 2-1 victory over the Syrupmakers in the Class AAAA state quarterfinals on Friday in Oakwood.
“He’s clutch,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said of Abarca, who has scored five goals in three postseason contests this year.
“He scored goals 30 and 31 on the season. He had a good week of practice, he finished well at practice, and you kind of had a feel he was going to be on tonight just from his training over the last couple of days.
“He plays bigger than a sophomore, he plays like a four-year veteran.”
Cairo’s season is complete.
Johnson (20-1) advances to the state semifinals and will host the winner of the Statesboro-Southeast Whitfield quarterfinal matchup on Tuesday.
Region 8-AAAA champion Johnson appeared well on its way to a comfortable victory over Region 1-AAAA champion Cairo (14-5-2) and a spot in the semis before the rains moved in.
Abarca got open on the left side of the field for his first goal, then came free in the middle of the field just outside the box six minutes later to drill in his second and give the Knights the early lead — as well as their best opening in any playoff game this year.
“We started out of the gate really, really well,” Shirley said. “We changed up the lineup a little bit to try to see if we couldn’t move forward, get in the attack and put some pressure on their back 10, and it paid off (in) the first 10 (minutes).”
The heavy rain moved in several minutes later, limiting both teams’ scoring opportunities for the remainder of the half.
Cairo didn’t record its first shot on goal until the 25th minute and finished the first half with only two.
Abarca almost notched a hat trick in the 37th minute only to have his shot from the right side of the field deflect off the left post.
Cairo dominated possession for about a 20-minute stretch of play early in the second half but failed to produce a goal.
Shirley felt the rain not only changed the field conditions, but his team’s mental approach as well.
“The rain hit and we almost stopped to attack and move forward,” he said. “In the second half I felt like we were playing too safe, playing not to lose instead of going out here and trying to play to win and seal the game off.”
Cairo was finally able to take advantage in the 79th minute, when Kyle Crawford got free in the middle of the field and delivered a shot that cut the lead to 2-1.
The Syrupmakers were unable to create another opportunity for the potential game-tying goal, despite possessing the ball on Johnson’s side of the field much of the final two minutes.
That sealed the Knights’ third appearance in the state semifinals in school history and their first since 2005.
“It started with summer ball,” Shirley said of his team’s success this season.
“We started building everything there, and it just kind of carried over to this year. It’s like, you know what, we’re tired of falling short and we’re ready to take the next step.”