Region games to watch:
West Hall at East Hall, 7:30 p.m., April 17
East Hall at Dawson County, 7:30 p.m., April 21
After three years of consecutive penalty shootouts, East Hall’s Chris Horton said he and Dawson County coach Jed Lacey have joked that it’s not even worth his teams playing the decisive region battle.
Considering the talent at the top of Region 7-AAA, tight matchups have become a theme.
“We might as well just take it straight to PK’s,” Horton joked. “This is one of the great regions in the state, and there’s always tough games in every level.”
The Vikings (10-4-1, 4-0) are ranked No. 4 in Class AAA behind region foes No. 2 West Hall and No. 3 Dawson County.
With just two games left in the regular season, East Hall is facing the toughest road to a region title. Horton’s squad will host rival West Hall (7-1-2, 5-0) on April 17 before travelling to Dawsonville to take on the Tigers (8-2-2, 3-1) in the region finale on April 21.
Each game in the last three years between Dawson County and East Hall has ended in a penalty shootout, with the Vikings prevailing two of the last three times.
“It’s going to be a dogfight,” said Lacey, who’s taken the Tigers to eight straight playoff appearances. “I think we scheduled it last because of that. With these rankings, you can spread them out and put them in a different order, and it’ll still be right.”
Tim Gale’s West Hall team is the frontrunner to earn its first region title since 2013. The Spartans pulled out a gritty 4-2 win in overtime on March 24 to dethrone the previously top-ranked Tigers in Dawsonville. For West Hall to match last year’s run to the Final Four, Gale will rely on the strike partnership of Simon Cobian and Richie Castruita, who are among the team’s leading scorers.
The Spartans are on a tear as of late, and are riding a five-game winning streak into the region rivalry at East Hall High.
Cobian scored the game-winning goal against Dawson County two minutes into the first overtime period.
“I think we’ve found ourselves,” said Gale. “Who the team is, how they play, who should be where. I think we’ve found our strength. We’re a pretty deep team. We can put in different players and be a little fresher.”
Since running out of steam in the loss to West Hall, defending region champion Dawson County has bounced back to good form by thrashing Banks County and Lumpkin County by a combined score of 9-0. Prior to the game, Lacey lost his starting winger Alan Sanchez to an undisclosed reason. The Tigers had put together a 6-1-2 record with Sanchez in the starting lineup.
Dawson County was able to claw back a 1-0 and 2-1 deficit to force overtime with the Spartans, but couldn’t finish the comeback against West Hall’s fresh bench.
Should East Hall defeat West Hall, and Dawson County beat the Vikings, all three teams will be in a three-way tie for first place. Dawson County has a date with Franklin County (2-8) on April 17 before the regular-season ending game with East Hall.
Lacey said he’ll be keeping in touch with East Hall-West Hall result, but mentioned that he wasn’t concerned about how the region standings shake out.
“We’ve seen each other so many times, we just need to know the outcome,” said Lacey. “It’ll go down to the final week. We expect to win if we play the right way. I’d love to see East Hall or West Hall in the championship game with us.”
Horton said he sees the region as a gauntlet that area teams must pass to impress in the state playoffs. Senior Leo Toledo is East Hall’s main threat with a stunning 41 goals in 16 games, while midfielder Carlos Castrejon has proved to be a vital cog between offense and defense. The Vikings have routed all four region opponents they’ve faced, but they’ll face both of the two teams with winning records within four days in West Hall and Dawson County.
For area teams, region standings may turn out to be just a number. East Hall finished as a No. 3 seed back in 2013, but was able to pull off a state semifinal appearance.
“How you match up with other teams, it really does prepare you,” Horton said. “If you’re in this region, you’re always up against quality opponents. You go in believing you can have a chance, and that’s a huge advantage.”