MACON — The search for a state title goes on for the Johnson High boys soccer team.
The top-ranked Knights fell 3-0 to St. Pius X in Saturday afternoon’s Class AAAA state title game at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium in Macon.
Henry Penter (33rd minute), JR Cozine (65th minute) and Kyle McLaughlin (70th minute) notched the deciding goals for the Golden Lions (17-5) after Johnson’s leading goalscorer Fabian Abarca was sent off in the 24th minute.
Abarca (44 goals) appeared to make contact with a St. Pius X defender during a free kick, and was immediately shown a red card by the lead referee.
Johnson (20-1-1) was unbeaten heading into its second state title game in three years, but soon unraveled after Abarca was sent off.
“They called it as overly aggressive play,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley. “I didn’t see it, and neither did my assistants. We just saw him pull the card out.”
Meanwhile, fifth-ranked St. Pius X notched its fourth straight state title (12th in program history) and its fifth state crown in the past six seasons.
The Knights did well to respond to their disadvantage, and nearly equalized when Junior Gonzalez nailed the woodwork on back-to-back shots with 24 minutes to play. However, two second-half goals by the Golden Lions in the space of five minutes put the result out of doubt.
Both sides shot out of the gate quickly from the opening whistle, with Abarca and St. Pius X striker Austin Fain trading shots in the early minutes. Abarca was responsible for the Knights’ lone first-half shot on goal in the 22nd minute when he tested Golden Lions goalkeeper Jake Beyer from distance.
But he was also verbally warned by the referee following his hard tackle in the 10th minute, which put the senior striker on thin ice. Just 15 minutes later, Abarca had been sent from the field and Johnson was without its top goalscorer.
Abarca notched eight postseason goals, including two against Fayette County, three against Pike County, one against Southeast Whitfield and two versus Buford.
“These guys battled, 10 men for nearly 70 minutes,” said Shirley. “Some teams would have folded with that type of adversity, but they did well to keep at it.”
St. Pius X proceeded to pepper the Johnson goalmouth with shots and finally broke open the scoreline when Fain found Penter running free through the middle of the penalty box. Penter finished low, past the diving arm of Knights freshman goalkeeper Cooper Bowen (3 saves).
Trailing 1-0 at the half, Johnson struck out to find the equalizer, forcing its two corners of the game in the opening five minutes. Gonzalez found himself desperately unlucky not to find the net when he forced an error from Beyer, rounded a defender and smacked both the far post and the crossbar in the space of seconds with 24 minutes to play.
“As soon as I saw the goalkeeper drop the ball, I tried to find the far post, because I knew he’d be closer to the near post,” said Gonzalez. “I tried to get the rebound, but I just couldn’t do it for my teammates. Being down to 10 men, controlling the pace, I think (scoring) would have changed it tremendously.”
But all of Johnson’s tempo was undone when Fain found Cozine rushing through the middle to finish for a 2-goal cushion with 15 minutes to play. Cozine then turned provider for junior Kyle McLaughlin, who tapped home unguarded for the easiest goal of the day with 10 minutes to play.
Shirley took off most of his starters with less than five minutes left, with many receiving hugs and words of consolation from their teammates on the bench.
“There’s great leadership on this team, a core of guys that meant a lot to this team,” said Shirley, who led Johnson to a state runners-up finish against Dalton two years ago. “This 2016 team was even better than the 2014 team. They were able to battle through a lot of adversity.”
Johnson graduates eight seniors over the offseason, but should return a strong group that includes several starters throughout the lineup.
With the win, St. Pius X completed the sweep of Class AAAA state title games, with the girls team defeating Marist 2-0 earlier in the afternoon.
“We have had a lot of accomplishments,” said Gonzalez. “There were around 60 teams that started the playoffs and it ended with us and St. Pius. “That’s a great honor, to be representing ourselves and where we’re from.”
POSTSEASON PATH: Johnson (No. 1 seed from Region 8-AAAA) defeated Fayette County (8-0), Pike County (6-4), Southeast Whitfield (1-0) and Buford (2-1) to reach the title game.
St. Pius X (No. 4 seed from Region 6-AAAA) defeated Northwest Whitfield (3-0), Wayne County (8-1), Spalding (3-1) and Cairo (3-0) to reach Saturday’s final.