Jonathan Miralrio spent all Thursday thinking about that evening’s regular-season finale against the Flowery Branch boys soccer team.
So when the Johnson sophomore got the ball in the final minute of the game, all he had to do was react.
Miralrio netted a deflected free kick with 16 seconds to play, lifting the No. 5 Knights to a 1-0 win at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium and an unbeaten record in Region 8-5A. Teammates mobbed Miralrio following the goal and then again once the final whistle sounded, parading their fourth straight region championship trophy in front of their home fans.
“I’m just speechless,” Miralrio said with a smile. “The ball kind of just came up in front of me, and I had to take a chance and make a play for my team. I got it done for my family, my team and everybody that was out here tonight.”
Johnson (14-3, 6-0 region) had already secured a No. 1 playoff seed with its 4-1 win against Loganville on Tuesday night, but the Knights still savored the opportunity to go undefeated in region play and enter the postseason on a four-game winning streak.
“It was huge for us to finish the regular season off the right way,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. “We’ve got a lot of momentum going forward.”
The Knights will begin their quest to return to the state championship game at 7 p.m. next Friday when they host Grady, which is ranked 10th despite finishing fourth in Region 6-5A.
The Falcons (10-6-1, 3-3), meanwhile, will open the playoffs at No. 3 Riverwood at 7 p.m. next Friday on the heels of a heartbreaking loss. Flowery Branch was locked into the No. 4 seed before Thursday’s game, and each of its region losses have come by one goal apiece against a team that finished ahead of it in the standings.
That gives Falcons coach Jeremy Purdy confidence his squad can compete with anybody in the playoffs.
“With the way we’ve played lately and as we’ve gotten healthier, I feel like we can match up with anyone,” Purdy said. “The guys feel the exact same way. We like what we’ve been able to do as a team, but now we have to work and get better over these next five or so practices.”
Flowery Branch was good enough to hang with Johnson for almost an entire 80 minutes.
The Falcons had the edge in scoring chances throughout the first half, none better than when Jason Acosta’s header off a corner kick in the 27th minute appeared to cross the goal line. But officials ruled Knights goalie Cooper Bowen’s diving, last-ditch-effort save was good, keeping the game scoreless into halftime.
A tactical change by Shirley gave Johnson more opportunities in the second half. The Knights added a second striker after halftime, but they were down a man for the final 24 minutes after a player received his second yellow card in the chippy game between region rivals.
“Our guys just kept fighting, and we made something happen even though we had only 10 men out there,” Shirley said. “Extra time was never on their minds.”
Indeed, Johnson created plenty of drama down the stretch — even before Miralrio’s game-winner.
Miralrio was fouled while dribbling near the 18-yard box with just less than a minute left, and officials initially ruled it happened inside the area, which called for a penalty kick. But after some discussion, Johnson was instead granted a short free kick that sailed just above the crossbar.
But Miralrio drew another rough foul in the frantic final minute, setting up Herbert Figueroa’s free kick from about 30 yards.
The ball ricocheted off a player inside the 6-yard box, and Miralrio took advantage of the mad scramble to poke in a right-footed shot that sent teammates and fans into a frenzy.
“At the end of practice two days ago, coach told us to be ready for the game,” Miralrio said. “I was ready right then, and I was thinking about this all day. Scoring that goal was pretty emotional not just for me, but for the team, as well.”