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Johnson boys prepare for top-ranked Dalton in state finals
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Johnson defender Alberto Deltoro (pictured, right) and teammates will face an unbeaten, high-scoring, defending state champion Dalton Saturday in Kennesaw. - photo by Nat Gurley | The Times

Class AAAA boys soccer state championship

Johnson (21-1) vs. Dalton (21-0-1)

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Firth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw

Tickets: $10

The Johnson boys soccer team’s road to the Class AAAA state finals didn’t start at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.

Rather, it began 18 miles further down Interstate 985 at the Silverbacks Sports Center in Suwanee, an indoor soccer facility. Arranged by senior midfielder Israel Avila, the Knights formed a team in the adult league, playing on a smaller pitch against opponents with various experience from high school to semi-professional.

By the end of last summer’s season, Johnson was undefeated.

“It helped us build chemistry,” Avila said. “As we progressed, we got better playing together. It’s just amazing once we’re all out there.”

Now, almost a year later, Avila and his teammates are playing for something even grander: Johnson’s first state championship.

The Knights (21-1) have never been there — they were a semifinalst in 2005 — and the challenge has never been greater. They face top-ranked defending state champion Dalton on Saturday at Kennesaw State University.

The bond Johnson’s players have developed between their indoor soccer days and Saturday will be tested like never before. The Catamounts (21-0-1) are on a 44-game winning streak, and haven’t lost in more than two years.

To top it off, Dalton has dashed Johnson’s title hopes the past two seasons with a pair of playoff wins against the Knights.

“You have to go in humble, because you know they’re going to be a good squad,” Avila said. “Go in and do your best, because they’re not going to go easy on you. They know that they have the upper hand on you, mentally.”

Johnson coach Brian Shirley likes to think otherwise.

Now in his sixth season at Johnson, he understands his team’s underdog status, and says it could play to the Knights’ advantage.

“(Dalton is) coming in as the obvious favorites,” Shirley said. “The pressure’s on them to go out and get that next one. We’re coming in playing our game. We expected to be here, but I don’t know how many other people expected us to be here.”

DELIVERING DEFENSE: Johnson picked a good time to have what Shirley called his team’s best defensive game of the season — the week of the state championship.

He was thrilled with his players’ efforts on defense in their 1-0 win over Southeast Whitfield in Tuesday’s semifinals. The Raiders were held scoreless for just the fourth time this year — something even Dalton couldn’t accomplish in the three meetings this year — and the quality of their shots were limited.

“It’s important to have a game like that because they’re similar teams,” Knights defender Alberto Deltoro said. “To be able to practice on what’s basically their little brother, it’s a preview of what we’ll see Saturday. It’s good that we got the clean sheet.”

Johnson must now contain the Catamounts’ dangerous attack, which is averaging just under six goals per game this season. They’ve outscored playoff opponents 29-1, including a 5-0 blowout against No. 3 Spalding in Tuesday’s semifinals.

But Dalton’s offensive numbers were even better last season, when the Knights lost just 2-1 in the second round of the state playoffs. It was the Catamounts’ closest game of 2013.

“We were able to apply a lot of pressure, and try to disrupt them in the middle last year,” Shirley said. “Granted, that was last year’s team. We had some different guys were able to do some different stuff with. I think that was key — we got them out of their element for a little while.”

This year’s Dalton team features a pair of dangerous midfielders, most notably nationally-recognized junior Eder Mora, that serve as the hub of the Catamounts’ offense.

“Those two guys right there make up the core strength of their team,” Shirley said. “They’re able to use their speed and run off those guys, because they pass so well and see things so well on their front end.”

Deltoro, Johnson’s defensive cog in Tuesday’s win, played comfortably against Southeast Whitfield’s offense, which managed to notch four goals in three games against Dalton during the regular season.

And with only 15 goals allowed this year, an average of 0.7 per game, the Knights’ back line doesn’t necessarily budge much. They only allowed more than one goal in a game on two occasions in 2014.

Nevertheless, Deltoro isn’t second-guessing the Catamounts’ attacking firepower.

“They have the ability to get everyone on the attack, and everyone can score,” he said. “They have pretty good height, and their throw-in is pretty deadly as well. Everyone is going to have to be focused on their marks.”

If all else fails, Johnson will put its trust in goalkeeper Ivan Salcido. The junior has made several keys saves this postseason, most notably a game-saving diving stop with 23 seconds left in overtime against Carrollton in the quarterfinals.

GETTING OPEN: While Dalton’s 130 goals this season is undoubtedly impressive, Johnson isn’t lacking in the scoring department by any means.

The Knights have 95 tallies of their own — 4.3 per game — and are still one of the area’s highest-scoring teams. They were held scoreless just once this season in their only loss of the year, a 1-0 loss to Gainesville on Apr. 18.

Playing on a wider field Saturday, rather a typical high school football field converted for soccer use, defenses will be forced to cover more field, which opens up space for passing and potentially more shots on goal.

“I think it’s going to have high intensity and high pressure,” Shirley said. “That Kennesaw field is long and it’s wide. There will be a lot of room to move around for both teams.”

Having quick attackers is sure to help, and Johnson has that in forward Fabian Abarca.

The standout sophomore has five goals in the playoffs, including a pair of two-goal games against Marist and Cairo. His free kick against Southeast Whitfield was headed in by Barut Perez for the game’s lone goal.

“It’s really good to come in with momentum,” Abarca said. “That gives you confidence and keeps your game going. It gives your teammates confidence to give you the ball. They know you’re going to do something productive for your team.”

Trying to score on a veteran Dalton defense that has allowed just 12 goals this season will be an uphill battle. The Catamounts have blanked opponents 12 times this year, including their last three playoff opponents.

Abarca says getting open without the ball will be essential to finding success with it.

“It’s great to move off the ball and create your own space,” he said. “My coaches always tell me that the most important thing about a forward is to create space without a ball. That’s what I have to do — play without the ball.”

MAKING HISTORY: Saturday’s David-versus-Goliath matchup has many area soccer enthusiasts showing Johnson their support, Knights fans or not.

“As a county, we’re all for each other,” Shirley said. “All the coaches have been here for a while, for the most part. When we’re not playing each other, we’re all pulling for each other.”

In the hallways of Johnson High, players and coaches are receiving good fortune from the student body. They anticipate a crowd of supporters in Kennesaw on Saturday.

“We have kids that normally wouldn’t be out here that are pulling for us,” Shirley said. “The community as a whole — faculty, the elementary schools, the middle schools. It’s good for the whole community at Johnson.”

For Shirley himself, Saturday is the ending of what he calls a “whirlwind” season.

During the year, his wife gave birth to a child, and also underwent surgery.

“It’s all been kinds of crazy for me this season,” he said.

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