OAKWOOD — Region game or not, the Johnson boys continue to play their best soccer against neighboring rival West Hall.
Playing in separate classifications for the first time, the Knights picked up their fifth straight win over the Spartans in a 3-1 battle between two ranked teams primed to contend for state titles Tuesday at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
Johnson (10-2-2), Class AAAA’s sixth-ranked squad and the No. 14 team in the Georgia high school coaches’ all-classification poll, scored twice in the first four minutes of the second half to break a scoreless contest on goals by Luis Deltoro and Jeffrey Cabrales, then secured its victory on Fabian Abarca’s free kick with 7:44 left to play.
The speed and physicality was uncharacteristic of a non-region game, but right on par for what has become one of the most Hall County’s most storied soccer rivalries over the past decade. Johnson has won every meeting dating back to 2009.
“It’s a pride game,” Knights coach Brian Shirley said. “These guys know each other — they play with each off the field in club ball and weekend ball. It means a lot to these guys to take a win against these rival teams like West Hall.
“Sometimes, in a non-region game, the level of intensity can go down. But they didn’t let that happen tonight.”
After an evenly-matched first half that ended with a 6-6 shot count, Johnson racked up 12 attempts to West Hall’s three. The Spartans, ranked fourth in Class AAA and 13th overall, had only been limited to one or fewer goals on one occasion this season and had only given up three goals in a game twice this season. Both came in a 3-0 loss to Dawson County on March 26.
Realizing this, Shirley intensified his team’s offensive pressure on the sidelines, and the strategy prevailed first when Deltoro connected on a pass from a flanking Abarca and buried the shot past West Hall goalkeeper Frankie Vazquez.
Two minutes later, Cabrales volleyed in a cross from the outside to give the Knights a commanding lead early in the half.
“We were running down the center a little too much and we wanted to have some success moving down the sides,” Shirley said. “They were working three in the back and they were giving us some space to work with on the sides.”
West Hall answered quickly, scoring its lone goal of the night three minutes later on Francisco Zamora’s one-on-one encounter with Johnson goalkeeper Jose Martinez in front of the net.
The Spartans then nearly tied the game in the 68th minute when a cross was deflected past Martinez, but the referee ruled the ball out of bounds before the pass was made. The Knights took advantage of the break and allowed just one West Hall shot in the final 12 minutes of play.
“I’m very proud of how well they shut West Hall down,” Shirley said. “I don’t know how many goals a game they were averaging, but I think it was about three or four a game.”
Abarca continued his stellar freshman campaign with a goal and an assist in the game. His free kick beat Vazquez from long range, targeted precisely in the top-right corner of the net.
“You just have to be concentrated, hit the ball right and hope for it to go in,” Abarca said.
His brother, Armando Abarca, sparked the Johnson defense with a scrappy performance that included drawing two of West Hall’s three yellow cards on the night.
The physical game ended with five yellow cards handed out.
“It just happens, I guess,” Armando said. “I’m the type of the person that if the other team is going to play physical, we’re going to play physical to be equal.”
Johnson continues its break from region play Friday when it hosts East Jackson. West Hall plays host to Duluth.
JOHNSON GIRLS 0, WEST HALL 0: The Lady Knights outshot the Lady Spartans 8-5, but neither team could find the back of the net Tuesday.
Chandler Steele and Brittany Martin paced the Johnson offense with several opportunities along the way, while
Gabrielle Ligas threatened to find the scoreboard with four separate tries in the final 15 minutes of the game that were all broken up.
Johnson’s Hannah Hodge and West Hall’s Kylie Beaman each recorded the shutouts in goal.