When Johnson’s Fernando Carrillo was tripped in the box within the first 50 seconds of Tuesday’s game against West Hall, junior Fabian Abarca was the first to offer to take the resulting penalty kick.
Head coach Brian Shirley wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We wanted to come out and play our game, to take it to them and attack,” Shirley said after his team’s 1-0 win in Oakwood. “We thought we could take advantage of their aggression at the back, and Fabian came up and made it count.”
Abarca’s penalty in the second minute, struck low and hard into the bottom left corner, earned Johnson (3-1) its seventh straight win against rival West Hall (2-2-1).
With wins against Gainesville and Habersham Central already on their resume, the No. 2 ranked Knights are gaining momentum heading into Friday’s region opener against Stephens County in Oakwood.
The Spartans, ranked No. 2 in Class AAA, registered just one shot on goal against a well-oiled Johnson backline that features four upperclassmen and fended off late spells of pressure in the final 10 minutes of the second half.
Playing amid a deep fog on a slick field, Abarca said his team’s win could help build character for the long year ahead.
“No doubt, we’re going to find another game with conditions like this,” he said. “It brings a lot of experience to our team, with as young of a team we have. It’ll make us better.”
Johnson wasted no time in earning its advantage. Midfielder Jaime Rosales slid a through ball into fellow senior Carrillo, who took a touch before getting brought down by a pair of West Hall defenders to earn the game’s lone penalty. Abarca coolly slotted the ensuing penalty past the arms of West Hall goalkeeper Cesar Villa.
Carrillo nearly picked up a goal himself with less than 10 minutes left in the half when Rosales’ pass found him in open space from seven yards out, but Carrillo skied his effort well over the bar.
“We’ve got to work on our attacking third,” Shirley said. “We’re not being as creative as we need to be, but it takes time to build the chemistry up.”
Richie Castruita’s right-footed shot from just inside the Johnson penalty box in the second half was West Hall’s best chance to pull level, but Gerardo Molina was able to parry it away to safety.
The Knights seemed to have earned a second penalty when Carrillo went down in the box with 23 minutes left, but he was called for diving. Shirley said his team thought Carrillo was pushed.
“We didn’t have the best angle, though,” he said. “They’re paid to do that, but they don’t get everything right. Sometimes they miss a call, and if they miss a call, it’s part of the game.”
Johnson, which typically likes to spread its offense throughout the field, was limited to controlling the midfield with a late afternoon shower making the field muddy and slick. Abarca said his team will need to get used to playing in poor conditions in order to make a deep run in the state playoffs this year.
Shirley said he was proud of his team for keeping strong despite West Hall attempting four shots in the final 20 minutes.
“It shows how much we’re growing together as a team to shut them down when they’re throwing everything they have at us,” he said. “Communication-wise, covering each other, we could have easily had a breakdown in the back, but it’s good to see they can stick it out.”
WEST HALL GIRLS 1, JOHNSON 0: After enduring three separate ACL surgeries, West Hall’s Reachel Beaulieu was determined to make a difference in her senior year.
With just 16 seconds gone in the second half against bitter rival Johnson, her long-distance half-volley on Tuesday night was enough to seal a win on the road and bolster coach Adam Johnson’s faith in his starting forward.
“To score the game-winning goal against a high-quality team like West Hall, and the way she stepped up to score, she’ll remember that for a long time,” Johnson said. “With this kind of win, I think this team will be able to look back on this and say we started something special here.”
Lucy Ibarra collected a shutout in her fourth varsity start for the Lady Spartans (2-2), who doomed the Lady Knights to their third straight loss to open the season.
But it was Beaulieu’s effort from 12 yards out, after latching on to a Monica Payero cross, that broke an early deadlock highlighted by Johnson’s sustained possession on the wings.
The Lady Knights (0-3) registered seven of their 11 shots in the second half as they attempted to rally for a late equalizer.
Itzel Rivera’s attempt from just inside the penalty area forced Ibarra into a reaction save with eight minutes remaining, but the Spartans keeper snuffed the effort out.
Johnson squandered perhaps its best chance of the evening when Hannah Hester’s close-range shot smacked the outside of the left post late in the first half.
West Hall took advantage of the opportunity from the second-half kick-off.
Payero’s quick cross found Beaulieu running full stride into the Johnson box before Beaulieu released a hard shot that evaded Hannah Hodge at her near post, gifting the Lady Spartans a much-needed road win.
Beaulieu has had surgery on her knee three times in the past three years, but Johnson said he’s hoping that his striker will be able to have better luck in her final year in Oakwood.
“(The team) turned it on against our cross-town rivals,” Johnson said. “It was one of those exciting games that you know will mean a lot.”