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VIDEO: Johnson tops Buford 2-1, advances to Class AAAA state title game for 2nd time in 3 years
Undefeated Knights (20-0-1) will next play St. Pius X in Saturday's state championship
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Johnson striker Fabian Abarca puts the Knights ahead 1-0 Tuesday as Buford's Brian Sullivan looks on during the Class AAAA state semifinals at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium in Oakwood. - photo by Jared Putnam

Finals

Thursday, May 12

East Hall vs. Decatur, 2:30 p.m. (at Mercer University)

Saturday, May 14

Johnson vs. St. Pius X, 2:30 p.m. (at Mercer University)

Senior striker Fabian Abarca continued to scream out to each and every one of his Johnson teammates after the final whistle blew, as if even he himself couldn’t believe what just happened.

“We’re going to the state title game!” he roared, clenching his fists. “We’re going to Macon!”

Abarca scored two goals, including a 57th-minute game-winner from a 30-yard free kick, to help undefeated Johnson (20-0-1) defeat Buford 2-1 in the Class AAAA semifinals Tuesday evening, sending the top-ranked Knights into their second state title game in the past three years.

Johnson will next play defending state champion St. Pius X 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Mercer University in Macon. The Knights last played in the state title game in 2014, where they fell to Dalton.

Abarca, who has notched a team-high 44 goals so far this season, intends for this year’s trip to Macon to be much different. 

“This team is more humbled,” said Abarca. “We really want that ring. That’s been our goal all along. Now we’ve got one last step.”

Abarca scored a goal apiece in each half before Buford’s Uriel Galarza cut the lead in half with 19 minutes to play. But the visiting Wolves (11-6-2), which had surprised many by reaching the semifinals as a No. 4 seed out of Region 8, were unable to find the equalizer against a stout Knights defense. 

Next, Johnson will face last year’s state title winners St. Pius X, who topped Cairo High 3-0 in Tuesday’s corresponding semifinal.

“We’ll give it our all,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley, who danced and sang with his players on the field after the game. “We get back to work tomorrow, and we’ll have one more game. It’s right back to work.”

Playing in front of the most raucous atmosphere of the season at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium, both teams set a furious pace with hard tackles and unforgiving counterattacks aplenty. A nearly-packed out Johnson High stadium exploded into life when Abarca beat his defender on a through ball before finishing in the top-right 90 of the goal to hand the Knights a 1-0 lead after 25 minutes.

Buford’s Fredy Benitez and Evan Sampers were both shown yellow cards for their exuberant tackles as Johnson patiently picked their moments to send either Abarca or strike partner David Flores in on goal. The two forward combined for a chance with just seconds to play in the first half when Flores’ shot clanged against the Wolves’ crossbar just seconds before halftime.

“These were just two good teams going at it and wanting it,” said Shirley. “I had a feeling they’d try to sit and draw us into making a mistake. We just had to stay cool and execute the game plan. (Rigo) Campa was outstanding today, any time we needed him to break up a counter attack, he had it.”

Abarca powered home Johnson’s second goal of the night in the 57th minute when he guided a perfectly-placed free kick from 30 yards out that deflected into the top of the net, past Buford goalkeeper Will Davis (3 saves).

“There’s a lot of emotion, being up 1-0, I still thought it was anyone’s game,” said Abarca. “Campa said we needed to score to shut (the Buford crowd) up, and he called it. We use the noise for positive things, when it gets louder, I tell them to sprint harder.”

Buford’s response, courtesy of a long throw-in from the far side just four minutes later, fell to Galarza, who made no mistake from eight yards out.

However, Johnson goalkeeper Cooper Bowen (two saves) and his defense held firm and Johnson fans flooded the field soon after.

The Wolves fell to Johnson 1-0 in this season’s earlier region matchup, but had rebounded with wins against Whitewater, Walnut Grove and Grady to reach the Final Four.

On the other side, Abarca has been critical to Johnson’s postseason success. He notched a hat trick against Pike County in the second round and the lone game-winner against Southeast Whitfield in last week’s quarterfinal round.

The Knights dedicated the win to injured teammate Isaac Henry, who suffered a broken right fibula earlier this season. Henry underwent surgery in March, and is continuing to heal.

Shirley said his Knights won’t feel too much undue pressure to perform in Macon.

“Once the whistle blows, they’ve been doing it all their life,” he said. “We’ve been continuing to get better each time out. It speaks to the resolve of these guys.”

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