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Johnson survives Pike County comeback, advances to Class AAAA quarterfinals vs. Southeast Whitfield
Top-ranked Knights (18-0-1) led by Fabian Abarca's hat trick in 6-4 win over visiting Pirates
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Johnson's Joshua Elizalde (14) moves the ball around Pike County's Blake Webb (6) during Tuesday's game against at Johnson High School. - photo by ERIN O. SMITH | The Times

Shot after shot, wave after wave, Johnson crashed the Pike County goal time and again Tuesday night, in search of the goal that would finally send them through to the state quarterfinals. 

And even at the final whistle, the Knights admitted they found themselves fortunate to come out as the victors.

Top-ranked Johnson (18-0-1) scored four goals in the second half to top Pike County 6-4 in the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs after trailing by a goal to the visiting Pirates with 28 minutes to play in Oakwood.

Senior Fabian Abarca scored a hat trick, including the go-ahead strike in the 62nd minute, which helped the Knights secure a win that sets up a home matchup against Southeast Whitfield in the Class AAAA quarterfinals on Friday. The time is to be decided.

With the win, Johnson has made it to the state quarterfinals each of the last three years. The Knights fell in last season’s quarterfinal round to Cross Keys. 

“We had a lot of chances to put it out of reach,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley. “There were a ton of chances we couldn’t finish. There were some mental errors, but it was a good thing we pulled it out like we did. It showed resiliency.”

Abarca and Marco Vazquez put Johnson in front 2-0 within the opening 18 minutes, but the Pirates (14-5) fought back through three consecutive goals by Errick Sturm (28th minute), Christopher Asher (46th minute) and Davis York (52nd minute) to turn the game on its head. 

David Flores poked home the tying goal for Johnson at 3-3 in the 59th minute, which finally allowed the Knights to wrestle back momentum. Abarca and teammate Bryant Anaya then combined for Johnson’s final three goals in the space of eight minutes to put the decision out of doubt.

Sturm added his second goal of the game seven minutes from time, but it was too little, too late for Pike County, which bows out in the second round of the playoffs. 

“I knew I just had to go and fight for it,” said Flores, who did well to be at the right spot to fire home when Abarca’s long-range shot was parried by the Pike keeper. “I had to be there to make something happen. We kept fighting.”

Flores’ goal marked the end of a rough stretch for Johnson as the Pirates threatened to enact a stunning upset. Sturm dispossessed Johnson goalkeeper Cooper Bowen before tucking in a shot to the bottom right of the net in the 28th minute to cut the Knights’ early lead in half. 

Pike County was awarded the first of its two penalties just a minute later after a Pirate player was cut down in the box, but Sturm shanked his attempt wide left. 

Johnson continually threatened the Pike penalty area, outshooting its opponents 22-5 on the night. And the Knights’ myriad close misses were only magnified when Christopher Asher converted a penalty just six minutes into the second half, making it 2-2. 

York then compounded the Johnson misery when he was left wide open in the box on a counter attack to slide home for the Pirates’ first lead of the game. 

“We were a little sloppy in the back,” said Shirley. “We’ve got to raise the level of play against Southeast Whitfield.”

Abarca said he tried to keep everyone’s heads up as Johnson attempted to reverse the flow. It helped when he dribbled from the near sideline through the top of the 18-yard box before taking a shot, which rebounded back into Flores’ path.

Abarca then notched the go-ahead goal three minutes later, taking advantage of a good header on a long throw-in by Edgar Torres. 

Bryant Anaya helped Johnson regain the two-goal cushion when his long-distance effort was deflected in for a 5-3 margin. 

“I trusted my teammates,” said Abarca. “I knew we’d come back. You look at this team, we fight for everything. It proves how tough we are mentally. I’m proud of this team.”

The focus now shifts to third-ranked Southeast Whitfield (13-2-3), who defeated Windsor Forest 4-0 in the second round on Tuesday night. 

“When you get to state, crazy stuff happens,” said Shirley. “We need to be more like a team and not individuals.”

NOTES: Johnson beat Southeast Whitfield 1-0 in the semifinals of the 2013-14 Class AAAA boys state tournament, the last time Johnson reached the state title game.