Fabian Abarca didn't have time for nerves when he stepped up to take his game-winning penalty kick against Buford High Friday night.
All he cared about was seeing the ball in the back of the net.
Abarca coolly dispatched the spot-kick with 19 seconds left in the second half, ensuring that Johnson (11-0, 5-0 Region 8-AAAA) earned an emotional 1-0 region victory and maintained its undefeated status.
“I’m the leader of this team,” said Abarca, “so I have to step up and come big to get this win for us.”
Marco Vazquez was cut down in the box by a Buford defender deep into the 79th minute, which drew the call.
Abarca, who said he usually finishes to the goalkeeper’s right, said he felt that Buford stopper Will Davis was leaning to that side and decided to switch it up. The senior (23 goals this season) struck a hard, low shot to the opposite side that found its way past Davis’ left arm. Abarca wheeled away to celebrate with a raucous crowd at The Dungeon, then continued the party once time officially expired.
“He’s been doing this for four years with us,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley. “He’s one of the most confident kids I’ve had the chance to coach. Every chance he has to put it in the back of the net, he’ll make it happen.”
Buford (3-3-2, 1-2) will be left wondering what might have been. The Wolves, who tried to hold out for extra time with Davis (8 saves) putting together a masterful performance in goal, will next travel to North Hall for another important region test.
“I thought our guys played tough and left it all out on the field,” said Buford coach Victor Lane. “It’s disappointing to let it end on a penalty kick, but (Davis) and the entire defense were a stone wall for us.”
Abarca’s goal capped off a tense, nervy affair in Oakwood, which included several would-be chances by the Knights. Johnson dominated possession, but struggled to convert clear-cut opportunities.
Johnson’s David Flores was unlucky to not slot home the winner with nine minutes remaining when he latched onto a rebound from Abarca from 10 yards out.
His effort was just five minutes after Abarca himself created an excellent chance on the break when he got goal side of his defender before unleashing a shot from inside the box that Davis did well to knock away.
“We knew that they had a strong keeper,” said Shirley. “We felt that if we could control the run of play, control set pieces, we had a chance to squeeze them out, limiting their touches and take the middle of the field. That can happen with good possession, like we had.”
Five players were issued yellow cards in the second half (three from Buford, two from Johnson), turning an already important matchup into an emotional one.
Abarca said his team knew it would be important to take care of business in regulation, rather than risk the result in overtime.
“It means a lot,” said Abarca. “We knew they were going to want to take it to PK’s, but we knew we couldn’t give up.”
Abarca said playing in the game carried an emotional weight to it. The striker was unable to play in last year’s game due to a red-card suspension he had received.
This time around, he was able to provide the winning touch.
“I felt pumped all day to play in this,” said Abarca. “I couldn’t sleep last night, I just wanted to be a part of this and help my team.”
Johnson finished with 12 shots, including seven on goal, with five corner kicks.
Johnson will next travel to play North Oconee (7-4, 2-1) in Bogart on Tuesday.
BUFORD GIRLS 3, JOHNSON 0: The sixth-ranked Lady Wolves scored three goals in a seven-minute stretch in the second half to ensure a comfortable victory Friday night at Johnson High.
Kristen Edmond (55th minute), Ambria Shutts (58th minute) and Elexa Bahr (62nd minute) all bagged goals to ensure that Buford (8-2, 4-0 Region 8-AAAA) remained unbeaten in region play.
"Being undefeated, that's where we wanted to be," said Buford coach Andrew Eager. "We've got to be playing at the top of our game, night in and night out. The Johnson girls did a really good job of frustrating us in that first half."
The Lady Wolves outshot Johnson 11-1 throughout the match, penning the Lady Knights back in their own half and forcing four saves from goalkeeper Hannah Hodge.
Senior Taylor Bell provided Johnson's best chance on goal, when she led a 2-on-1 opportunity with five minutes left in the first half, but her attempt was smothered by Buford goalkeeper Caliegh Rowan.
The Lady Knights were able to hold Buford to a 0-0 draw entering halftime, but the pressure grew too much for Johnson, who conceded Edmond's goal on Buford's fifth corner of the evening.
Johnson has already equalled last season's win total (5). Buford is seeking a return to the state playoffs, where they fell to eventual state champions St. Pius X in last year's quarterfinals.
The Lady Wolves are on a seven-game win streak dating back to Feb. 26
"We want to make a deep run," said Eager. "We have several seniors on this time that are highly motivated to do big things for Buford."
Bahr, a South Carolina signee, has had experience playing for the U-20 Honduras women's national team at last year's 2015 CONCACAF tournament.
Shutts is a Coastal Carolina signee, while Brie Smith and Isabelle Grest are both headed to Georgia State after their senior seasons.
Johnson (5-5-1, 2-3) next travels to take on North Oconee in Bogart on Tuesday, while Buford next travels to play North Hall.