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Undefeated Johnson completes memorable comeback to top East Hall, 4-2
Top-ranked Knights (9-0) score four goals in second half to rally from 2-0 deficit
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Calling it one of the proudest moments of his eight-year tenure as, typically-reserved Johnson boys soccer coach Brian Shirley allowed himself to speak with noticeable passion to his team Friday night.

“We had our backs against the wall,” said Shirley. “That was all heart, right there.”

Shirley’s squad smiled at the praise. The undefeated Knights (9-0) scored four second-half goals, including three in the space of nine minutes, to earn a momentous 4-2 victory over a sprightly East Hall team that looked dangerous from the first kickoff. 

The matchup paired two of the top teams in the state, including top-ranked Johnson from Class AAAA and second-ranked East Hall from Class AAA.

Mercer University commit Leo Toledo helped put the Vikings in front within the opening three minutes before Sergio Turcios bundled home a corner kick to give East Hall (8-1) a 2-0 lead early in the second half.

But the tides shifted when Fabian Abarca earned, then converted, a penalty just seconds later that cut the lead in half.

Five minutes later, Rigo Campa saw his 30-yard volley ricochet off an East Hall defender and in for the equalizer. Soon after, Kevin Flores did well in the 49th minute to put the ball in the net after Abarca’s initial shot was parried away.

Senior Edgar Torres punched in the insurance goal with just five minutes remaining, courtesy of a brilliantly-lofted cross from Alex Penaloza.

“To be down 2-0, and come out and have that effort, the guys really stepped up,” said Shirley. “It’s not an easy task to come here with a great team like East Hall, but I thought we had a fine defensive performance in the second half.”

The lights have rarely been brighter for Johnson, who are top-ranked in Class AAAA, according to Eurosport, and are No. 10 in the nation on USA Today’s Super 25 spring boys soccer rankings.

But the Vikings were unafraid and came out blazing, with Toledo’s hard shot from the right wing forcing a tipped save from Johnson keeper Cooper Bowen, but the ball was eventually bundled in for the opener.

The Knights poured on the pressure, winning four of their five corners in the first half as Shirley’s attack tried to find a quick answer.

Abarca floated in and around the midfield, trying to open up passing lanes early, but Shirley pushed him back up to striker after that tactic failed to present any true chances.

And when Turcios converted his near-post chance to give East Hall a two-goal cushion, East Hall coach Chris Horton felt his team should have continued to push.

“It’s a very young team,” said Horton. “We’ve got six or seven starters that are still learning their positions, so we’re a work in progress.”

Less than a minute later, Abarca was felled in the Vikings box, which allowed the striker to finish hard and low to the keeper’s right.

Shirley believes that goal motivated his Knights more than anything.

“They believe in themselves and they believe in each other,” said Shirley. “Having that connection is huge.”

Campa’s optimistic volley from long-range took a wicked deflection into the back of the East Hall net soon after, which tied the game, before Flores was at the right place, at the right time to connect on Abarca’s rebound.

The Knights tightened up through the middle as Turcios and Toledo lashed five second-half shots on Bowen, but the rally fell flat.

“I don’t like moral victories,” said Horton, speaking on his team’s electric first-half outing.

Johnson finished with 11 shots, including six on frame, with five corners. East Hall finished with three corners.

The Knights have given up just 12 goals all season on their quest to avenge last year’s state quarterfinals loss to Cross Keys. Johnson returns home to face a tough region schedule against White County (Tuesday) and Buford (Friday).

East Hall next travels to Stephens County on Tuesday, before hosting Franklin County on Friday.

JOHNSON GIRLS 8, EAST HALL 0: The Lady Knights (4-4-1) struck for five goals in seven minutes early in the first half to open up a commanding lead and never let go Friday night at East Hall Stadium.

Itzel Rivera and McKenzie Carter picked up two goals apiece as Johnson broke a two-game skid and strolled to a comfortable road win.

Itzel Rivera opened the scoring when she finished off a rebound from freshman striker Dani Malone.

Evelin Avitia doubled the lead with a cool finish under the East Hall goalkeeper’s arms three minutes later.

Joanne Castillo (14th minute), Maria Rivera (15th minute) and McKenzie Carter (16th minute) then combined for the next three goals, with the pick of the bunch going to Castillo for her textbook header at the far post from a Malone corner kick.

Carter kept up the scoring with a goal in the first minute of the second half before Malone (53rd minute) and Itzel Rivera (65th minute) tacked on the finishing touches.

East Hall dropped to 2-7 on the season.

Johnson next hosts White County on Tuesday, and Buford on Friday.

East Hall next travels to Stephens County on Tuesday, before hosting Franklin County on Friday.

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