SUGAR HILL — A 10-game winning streak helped the Johnson girls soccer team evolve into a Region 8-AAAA contender.
One more win would’ve been perfect.
The Lady Knights gave up a pair of early goals in the eighth minute of Monday’s region title-deciding match against Lanier, and the Lady Longhorns went on to win 3-0.
Breakaway goals by Maddie Conley and Tori Wyant within seconds of each other was enough to hand Johnson (10-6-1, 6-2 Region 8-AAAA) its first loss since March 4, while earning Lanier (12-3-1, 7-0) its second straight region championship.
Nevertheless, Lady Knights coach Phil Higgins couldn’t be disappointed in his team’s unprecedented turnaround this season. After starting the year 0-5-1, they outscored opponents 44-9 the rest of the way and secured second place in the region.
“From March 4 on, were slowly building and working together with each other,” Higgins said. “This is the most unselfish team I’ve ever coached. You’ll see girls give it up right in front of the goal if they think their teammate has a better shot.”
Johnson will host the No. 3 seed from Region 6-AAAA in the first round of the state playoffs next Wednesday.
It’s the Lady Knights’ second straight trip to the postseason, but their first home playoff game since 2011. They’ll look to get past the first round for the first time in four trips under Higgins.
“Our goal was to be playing for the region title at the end of the season, and to win a playoff game,” Higgins said. “Those goals are still doable, but obviously we wanted to win this one.”
Johnson will need to get back to typical offensive form quickly before the playoffs begin next week after suffering its first shutout since March 1. But with a 16-6 shot advantage and several pristine scoring opportunities Monday, the only concern is finding the back of the net.
“They expected to win that game,” Higgins said. “There’s no question they expected to walk away from that game with 10 minutes left.”
Strangely enough, the Lady Knights watched a potential 1-0 lead turn into a two-goal deficit in a two-minute span.
Evelin Aviata’s shot in the sixth minute was misplayed by Lanier goalkeeper Emily Polanco and rolled into the net, but game officials determined her approach on the goal was offsides.
“They said she was offsides,” Higgins said. “I thought she started to run pretty early.
“I didn’t think it was a poorly called match. The officiating was good – we could’ve finished a whole lot more.”
Two minutes later, Corley beat the Johnson defense, chased down a loose ball and ripped Lanier’s first goal past Lady Knights goalkeeper Hannah Hodge.
Not even a minute later, Wyant scored in the same fashion.
“We gave up those two early goals, and that was tough to recover from,” Higgins said. “Sometimes soccer goes that way. Sometimes you feel like you’re supposed to win a game, and you don’t.”
Wyant added an insurance goal for Lanier in the 59th minute, heading a pass from Samantha Helmink past Hodge.
The Lady Longhorns, which have won eight in a row, return to the postseason after reaching the second round in 2013. They have one region game, a home contest against Stephens County, remaining on their schedule.
Johnson concludes its regular season at Lakeview Academy on Wednesday.
JOHNSON BOYS 2, LANIER 0: Luis Deltoro and Barut Perez each scored a pair of second-half goals and the Knights finished Region 8-AAAA play unbeaten Monday.
Deltoro assisted on Perez’s goal in the 65th minute, sailing a free kick towards to the net from 30 yards out. Perez buried the rebound.
Deltoro ripped a hard shot in front of Lanier goalkeeper Amaury Ramos on an assist in the 72nd minute, securing the Johnson (16-1, 8-0) victory.
“We had a feeling that if we could get that first one, we’d be ok,” Knights coach Brian Shirley said. “It just took a while.”
Johnson bounced back from a 1-0 loss to Gainesville on Friday, which ended the second-ranked Knights’ 15-game unbeaten run.
After a non-region game with Lakeview Academy on Wednesday, they’ll enter the state playoffs as a top seed, and host the No. 4 team from Region 6-AAAA next Tuesday.
With top-ranked Dalton, the defending Class AAAA champion, likely on the other side of the state bracket, Johnson is potential threat for the 2014 title. The Catamounts have ousted them the last two seasons, including last year’s second-round meeting.
“I think we’re in a good position, but there’s always room for improvement,” Shirley said. “We’re still looking for a full 80 minutes of soccer. We haven’t hit that yet. We’ve played 60-65 minutes of quality soccer, but not quite gotten to that full 80 of our style yet.”
Lanier (8-6-2, 4-3) currently sits in fourth of the region, but can jump to third with a win over Stephens County today, paired with a Lumpkin County loss to Monroe Area.