Class AAAA state championship
Johnson (21-1) vs. Dalton (21-0-1)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw
A typical night for the Johnson boys soccer team often features a brilliant pass by Barut Perez to Fabian Abarca, who buries the shot.
Tonight was no typical night. Not by any means.
This time, it was Abarca feeding Perez for a goal in the 27th minute, and the Knights secured their first-ever trip to a state championship game by defeating Southeast Whitfield 1-0 in Tuesday’s Class AAAA semifinal.
Abarca fired a free kick into traffic in front of the net, and Perez, a specialist in that particular situation, headed the ball past Raiders goalkeeper Ivan Ortiz for the only goal Johnson (21-1) needed for the historic win.
“Off set pieces, I’ve scored roughly five or six (this season),” Perez said. “At practice, that’s our routine. Even on the free kick, we always look for me in the back post.”
The perfectly-executed play has the Knights staring down history, as they prepare for Saturday’s championship game at Fifth Third Stadium in Kennesaw.
The state title will be decided in a heralded battle between second-ranked Johnson and top-ranked, defending state champion Dalton, which added to its unbeaten record this season by breezing past Spalding 5-0 in its semifinal.
Their last meeting was in the second round of the 2013 playoffs, when the Catamounts eliminated the Knights with a 2-1 triumph.
“It’s going to take everything,” Perez said. “One-hundred percent, everyone giving their heart. It’s everything.”
That’s a percentage Johnson coach Brian Shirley is still looking for this season. The Knights were close Tuesday, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, but still had moments of struggle against the hard-pressing Southeast Whitfield (14-6-2) side.
There’s no better time than Saturday to hit 100 percent.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do every year – keep improving as the season goes on,” Shirley said. “Defensively, this had to have been one of the best games we’ve played all season, for sure.”
Johnson was hanging on by a thread at halftime, as Southeast Whitfield dominated the pace of the first half with a quick, aggressive offense.
The Raiders wasted little time giving the Knights early scares. In the sixth minute, Knights goalkeeper Ivan Salcido needed a leaping stop to keep a bouncing free kick out of the net.
Five minutes later, Victor Garcia ripped a free kick off the crossbar, offering Johnson another early wake-up call.
“We were off just the first 20-25 minutes,” Shirley said. “We gave them too much space. Their center mids had too much time on the ball.”
But all the momentum Southeast Whitfield built early in the half was completely doused with one free kick by Abarca.
Typically on the receiving end of assists, Abarca targeted the kick to the right side of traffic in the box. Perez did the rest, piercing the right corner of the net with his header.
“I was kind of surprised (I scored), but you can’t back down, especially in a semifinal game,” Perez said. “We’ve been wanting this since the summertime. You shouldn’t be afraid to go for the head and win the 50-50s.”
“We had a couple of scouts come back and say they didn’t really defend set pieces very well,” Shirley added. “We kind of felt we had an advantage coming in, and could make something happen on the back end.
“We executed throughout the season on set pieces. Another one came through big for us tonight.”
With a lead at hand, Johnson played with a more relaxed demeanor until intermission, but narrowly escaped Southeast Whitfield’s best scoring chance of the half with two minutes remaining.
Artemio Lopez headed a free kick by Miguel Hernandez towards an unguarded portion of the goal, only to have it cleared by Israel Avila. The clear was too high and bounced off the crossbar, requiring Salcido to jump out and grab the loose ball.
It proved to be the Raiders’ last serious offensive threat. They continued to attack the net in the second half, primarily on corner kicks and long throw-ins, but Johnson’s defense never faltered.
Shirley was especially impressed with the work of defender Alberto Deltoro, who nullified many of Southeast Whitifield’s attempts to find open space with their attackers.
“He had it locked down back there,” Shirley said. “You couldn’t ask for better defense than that. It was unbelievable what he did back there tonight.”
Southeast Whitfield, a state finalist in 2013, completes its season with the loss. Despite reaching the state semifinals in four of the last five seasons, the Raiders are still without a state title.