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Johnson boys soccer team blasts Pickens 8-1, advances to 2nd round of Class AAAA playoffs
Fabian Abarca scores four goals to lead Knights to opening round win
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Johnson's Fabian Abarca (7) pushes the ball in towards the goal while being guarded by Pickens County's Sky Diprima (5) during Wednesday's game in the opening round of the Class AAAA state tournament at Johnson High. - photo by Erin O. Smith

2nd round: Johnson vs. Thomas County Central

When: TBA May 6

Where: Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium, Johnson High School

Tickets: $7

For Brian Shirley’s deep Johnson team, the experiment worked.

The head coach started three freshmen, including Marcos Vazquez as a striker alongside regular Fabian Abarca, and used senior Fernando Carrillo as a left winger in Wednesday’s 8-1 rout of Pickens in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs.

Vazquez repaid his coach’s faith by scoring twice in the one-sided affair, while Abarca netted four goals, including a hat-trick in the opening 24 minutes.

Fourth-ranked Johnson (16-2), which has won 15 of its last 16 games, will host Thomas County Central on May 6.

“To have a freshman step up in that moment, where you’re a 15-16 year old kid and it’s your first opportunity to play in a state playoff game, that’s huge,” said Shirley. “We wanted to take advantage of some of the lack of speed they had on the defense.”

Abarca and Vazquez combined for the Knights’ first six goals after initially struggling to break down the visiting Dragons.

Shirley said Vazquez, as well as fellow freshmen Rigo Campa and Joshua Elizade, had proved themselves in practice and warmups, and deserved the chance to continue their good form in the playoffs. Campa has been a starting midfielder since the beginning of the season, while Elizade and Vazquez have typically been role players.

“It’s all about getting the young guys confidence,” said Shirley. “It didn’t show in the locker room, but on the field, you could tell there were some nerves.”

Elizade provided an excellent cross from the right wing to give Abarca his third goal of the night, while Carrillo did a serviceable job of tracking back and maintaining possession with Pickens’ midfielders.

The Dragons recorded just one shot on the night, Erick Gomez’s consolation goal in the 69th minute, after Shirley had pulled most of his starters.

True to form, it took a brilliant piece of individual skill by Abarca to get Johnson going.

The junior opened the scoring in the 10th minute when he picked up possession 30 yards out from goal, juked two defenders, then unleashed a hard shot to the right of Dragons keeper Adam Leicht (six saves).

Abarca now has 24 goals so far this season.

“I was confident in myself,” Abarca said, grinning. “Coach said that to win these types of games, you have to be confident in yourself, and in your team, and I was confident in myself then.”

Four minutes later, Vazquez scored his first career playoff goal off a low cross by junior Bryant Anaya. Abarca scored the game’s next three goals within 12 minutes, including two headers. He suffered a painful knock on the inside of his right foot before his second goal, and said a trainer will work on it during Thursday's scheduled practice.

“It’s going to get harder from here,” he said. “Other teams will come in, have more talent, better coaches, and it’ll be tougher to get chances to shoot.”

Vazquez, Campa and Jaime Rosales all scored in the second half to end Pickens’ season at 5-8-1. Shirley said he’ll continue to have faith in his young players if they keep performing like they did on Wednesday night.

The attention now turns to Thomas County Central, which earned its berth into the second round by beating Veterans 5-4 on penalty kicks after the two teams ended regulation tied 0-0. The Yellow Jackets (11-6, 7-3) are the No. 3 seed out of Region 1-AAAA.

Thomas County Central has given up just two goals in the last four wins.

“I don’t think people give the teams down south enough credit,” said Shirley. “Anything can happen when you get into the later rounds, especially with the Atlanta schools. Any given night, something can happen.”

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