It’s been a banner year for soccer in the United States, where record numbers of viewers watched the U.S. escape from the Group of Death and into the knockout rounds of the World Cup.
But even before national pride took center stage in the sport’s premier event, Hall County soccer fans were already being treated to a historic year on the high school level.
No team in the area enjoyed more success than the Johnson High boys, who reached the state championship game for the first time in program history and finished with a 21-2 record.
“I think in Hall County (soccer has) grown a little faster because of our population,” Johnson athletic director Matt Stowers said. “That’s part of who we are now. My history is I’ve coached football, baseball, wrestling, but I’ve never really had much to do with soccer other than watching some games here or there.
“But, when you watch really good soccer, it’s pretty exciting. I had the opportunity this year to watch a lot of really good soccer both with our boys and our girls. I think that generates excitement, when people see that success.”
The Knights’ state runner-up finish capped a solid year of sports at Johnson that also included strong runs by the girls soccer team and boys basketball team.
The Times sports editor Jared Putnam sat down with Stowers to discuss the Knights’ historic soccer season and his thoughts on continuing a non-region football schedule, as part of a series of question-and-answer sessions with area athletic directors.
What stood out to you about Johnson athletics last season? Boys soccer obviously had a tremendous run.
“It was exciting to go through the whole trip to the state championship game with soccer. It’s a great group of boys. Coach Shirley has developed a good program, and every year they’re pretty successful.
“Same thing with the girls. But we’ve had a pretty good bit of success in other areas, too, cross country, wrestling, boys basketball and had a couple other kids place in track. It’s been an exciting year. This being my first year both as athletic director and at Johnson High School, it was very beneficial.”
Region 8-AAAA looks to be a lot more challenging this year with Buford, White County, North Hall and North Oconee all moving in.
“It does pose new challenges, which is not always bad. We’re going to be competitive at whatever we’re trying to do. Soccer, basketball, baseball, wrestling are all going to have new challenges, but our goal is ultimately to be competitive in everything we do. It’s going to be interesting to mix it up with some new schools and see some new faces.”
Was it a relatively easy decision to retain a non-region football schedule once everyone learned that Buford, White County, North Hall and North Oconee — all playoff teams last year — were going to be joining the region?
“Selfishly, no, it wasn’t an easy decision. We want to step up and compete with anybody at any day, but the big picture of things is that we’re still building a program. We’re building something special at this place. As far as football goes, we didn’t want to damage the direction ... we’re headed into. Coach Roquemore is taking that program to a great place.
“Sure, as far as the decision, (realignment) weighed in there, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t — who we would have to face and who we would play. Would we have liked to have gotten back in there to a region (schedule)?
Absolutely, but it wasn’t time. Hopefully in two more years we’ll reevaluate and it’ll be time then.”
Does Johnson have one particular rival? You seemed to have a few really good rivalry games last year.
“The Battle of Oakwood (the Johnson vs. West Hall football game), that’s a crazy atmosphere. It’s a great atmosphere for our kids and for the West Hall kids to experience. I’ve been in Hall County basically all my life, and some of the biggest rivalries, I guess you could say, or biggest games, were against other Hall County schools.
Whether it be North Hall-Gainesville or North Hall-East Hall or Johnson-West Hall, Chestatee-Flowery Branch, I think it kind of differs from time to time depending on where there’s (the most) success going on.
“Soccer, it was crazy this year, that boys and girls soccer game when we played Gainesville, it was pouring (rain). Literally, the field was flooded, but the stands were full because of two successful programs.
“Basketball, the same thing, we had great crowds every night because people supported what our boys were doing. We do look forward to playing a West Hall because we’re so near it in proximity and so many of those kids go to church together or hang out together.
What would you say is the biggest challenge for Johnson High in particular or high school athletics in general?
“A lot of times, and I read this in the article you did with Ethan (Banks) at West Hall, the challenge with athletics is that we hear a lot more about the negative. The kids that get injured or have concussions or have an accident, but we seldom hear about the little things. There’s so much that goes on in the interaction between a coach and his players or her players. We have coaches here that go above and beyond the call of duty.
“I think the challenge that we as athletic programs face is the fact that there are a lot of demands placed on coaches and their families. They sacrifice a lot for their kids — not just their family, but for the kids they coach in school. “And, always, finances are a big challenge.
The more you win games, the more tickets you sell and the more revenue you generate, the more you’re able to invest back into your programs and your kids as well. Our coaches do a great job fundraising and the community is unbelievable in supporting us. There are a lot of deep-rooted Johnson High School people that bleed that navy and Columbia blue, and they help us tremendously.
“The biggest challenge, as a whole, is people realizing what coaches do. It’s more than a Friday night. They do a lot more, and I think if people realized more what they do, there would be a lot more support in many different areas.”
Does it seem like, as time goes on, fans become less and less forgiving of coaches for not winning fast enough? Has it just become a case where, if a coach isn’t winning almost immediately, a lot of fans are done with them right away?
“I haven’t experienced that here, our community is very supportive, but I have seen that. Not so much at the high school ranks, but more so at the college ranks. You hear, though, more at the big programs in South Georgia or Gwinnett County where it’s ‘win, or go find somewhere else to coach.’ I guess fans have the right to voice that opinion.
They buy the ticket, they follow, but I don’t see that happening around, anywhere in Hall County.
“It’s a great place to live, great place to raise your family. That happens, but not so much around here.
What would you like to see Johnson athletics accomplish going forward?
“Winning is always fun and everyone wants to win. I’m no different, our coaches are no different. But the greatest area we want to win is at life. I want our kids, when they graduate from Johnson High School, to walk out and say, ‘I was proud to be a Knight,’ whether it was the kid that doesn’t participate in any sport or they participate in three sports.”
“We have a creed at Johnson, it’s over the door and on banners and things. It has four tenets: honesty, responsibility, respect and service. If we can get our kids to believe in those and instill those core values into them, they’re going to be successful out there, and that’s really what it’s all about.
“I’ve got kids that I coached 10 years ago that still text me or meet for breakfast. Those are the valuable things that are intangible. That’s my vision, that’s my goal, to send kids out into the real world prepared.”