Adversity hasn’t slowed the championship dreams of the Johnson boys soccer program this season.
Working hard and making sacrifices come with the territory for the third-ranked Knights (12-2-1, 7-0 Region 8-5A), who are solidly focused on chasing the state championship in 2021, after the cruel reality of having the previous season cut short midstream when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and high school sports ceased for the spring.
However, posting 12 straight wins this season with two to go before the postseason have Johnson’s soccer player eager for the postseason, where they’ll be greeted with a playoff bracket that will be a gauntlet from beginning to end.
But if there’s any squad up for the challenge, the Knights will certainly give it their best.
“We take so much pride in playing soccer at Johnson,” junior captain Angel Sagrero said. “We have a great community, great fans and really want to win it for those eight seniors who didn’t get to finish last season.”
The crowning moment of the regular season for Johnson’s boys was pouring on to the field after beating Clarke Central 1-0 in double overtime on March 30, marking the program’s seventh straight region championship. Without prompting or planning in advance, players got together for impromptu photos with seven fingers in the air.
It was not a scripted way to celebrate, but a moment that was stamped as one owned by the 2021 Knights to remember for years to come.
“That was a very special moment for our program,” Johnson coach Frank Zamora said. “We faced some challenges and obstacles early in the season, but that was one of our goals to win the region championship.”
Despite only having three seniors this season, the Knights pulled out the region championship, in Athens, by adjusting to the style of play from Clarke Central and momentum shifts that moved from one side to another.
In the second period of extra time, Jorge Sandoval pushed the ball down the field and found Christian Robles on a cross in front of the net for the goal with three minutes remaining.
After that, players for Johnson had to contain their joy for just a few moments before celebrating the fact that it achieved one of the biggest goals for this season.
However, the 2018 state champions have much bigger goals now.
The Knights, ranked No. 1 in the country last season, are looking to cap off a run where they were unbeaten through eight games before the season ended March 12, 2020.
For the sophomore Sandoval, it’s all about pride in wearing the baby blue and white.
“At Johnson, we’re representing the school, community and all our fans,” Sandoval said. “I”m trying to give it my all and help the team get as far as we can in the playoffs.”
Zamora stressed the quality of the match against Clarke Central, noting that Johnson had some scoring opportunities in regulation, but were stymied by good goal keeping play by the Gladiators.
To win in such a difficult environment made it that much more special, according to the third-year Knights coach.
“Those are the moments you live for as a coach,” Zamora said. “The kids found a way to battle and pull through. That moment when it was over, everyone was thrilled.”
Despite the dominant record, it hasn’t been an easy run for the Knights.
Almost every game has been a battle that went down to the wire.
Zamora said a lot of that has to do with the quality of competition, with 10 of 13 opponents having been ranked at some point in 2021.
After early losses to Flowery Branch (12-2-1) and East Hall (11-2-1), Johnson got back in the win column against Greater Atlanta Christian on February 23 and hasn’t looked back.
During that run, the Knights have also pulled out victories in double overtime against Loganville and Cross Keys.
“It’s been a season full of emotions,” Zamora added.
Johnson’s coach knew that it was going to be tough for his program to adjust to the pandemic in 2020. Just a year ago, the Knights were ripe with senior leadership and primed for a run at another state title.
However, battling a national-health crisis became everyone’s focus for the next year.
Still, the Knights were not going to lose their knack for soccer.
During the time away, players were constantly doing drills to stay sharp.
Eliam Chavez, a senior, said he was constantly playing out mental scenarios to be ready when — and if — the 2021 season came around.
He was keen on winning the state championship for himself.
However, getting that championship ring has an even bigger meaning for Chavez, whose brother Diego Chavez was a senior for the Knights last season.
His mindset is set squarely on bringing that state championship back to Oakwood and give the seniors from 2020 a fitting symbolic end to their careers.
Johnson’s coach said the entire story is a learning experience for everyone involved with a greater purpose beyond what happens in soccer.
“They might not be able to understand today why everything has happened the way it has and last season ended in such a radical way, but they’ll look and see what they learned in those eight games last season will shape who they are in the future,” Zamora said.
After spring break, Johnson has a pair of regular-season matches remaining: at Collins Hill on April 13, then the rivalry match against Gainesville on April 16 at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
After that, the pursuit of the state title commences for the Knights.