In a blink of an eye his high school career was finished.
Late in the second half and with his team leading Cedartown 3-0 in the second round of the Class AAA soccer playoffs, West Hall senior Juan Arbalaez took control of the ball at midfield, felt someone kick his heel and then heard a "pop." The next thing he knew he was on the ground clutching his left knee.
"It was immediate pain so I knew something was wrong with it," Arbalaez said Saturday. "Everyone else thought it was nothing serious."
But it was.
The next day he went to the doctor and while an x-ray revealed no break, the doctor instructed him to see a sports therapist. It was there that he heard the news that no athlete, let alone one a few wins away from playing for a state title, wants to hear.
His knee was injured. A definite strain, and possible tear of the meniscus.
"I couldn’t believe it was over so quick, and from a little dumb play," he said.
Over it is, and for the main catalyst behind West Hall’s run to the quarterfinals, it ended too soon. And now he’s gone from the Spartans’ leading assist man to the team’s biggest cheerleader.
On Saturday, during what would have been the biggest game of his career, Arbalaez couldn’t man the midfield like he has for four years at West Hall. Instead, he was relegated to the sideline where he had an up-close view of his team’s quarterfinal match against Eagles Landing.
And like a perfectly placed through ball, he took it in stride.
"It hurts because I’d like to be out there playing with them," he said. "They support me, and they want to win the game for me, so that helps."
His teammates didn’t let down one of their captains.
After several rain delays that ended with a scoreless first half, West Hall scored two goals after halftime to beat Eagles Landing 2-0 and advance to the semifinals for the first time in school history.
The win for the third-ranked Spartans isn’t surprising; the fact that they could win without one of their best players is.
Or is it?
"I told them I want a state title and they can win one without me," Arbalaez said. "I’m not the only player here. We have talent."
For anyone that has seen West Hall play this year, it’s obvious that Arbalaez is one of the most talented players on the team. His free kicks bend like Beckham’s. His ability to possess the ball is unmatched. His moves to get around his opponents are often times jaw-dropping. His shots on goal are so powerful that it seems that they might go through the back of the goal. Now, his best move is clapping his hands on the bench.
While his injury is certainly devastating, the Spartans proved Saturday that his absence won’t end their season. That says a lot about this team.
Most teams falter when their best player goes down. They use the absence as an excuse and play as if they don’t know how to compete without that player on the field.
Not at West Hall.
This team is too close for that. Arbalaez has played alongside Rudy Vazquez, Israel Del Toro and Alex Munoz since middle school and he knows his friends and teammates will be fine without him. Especially since he’ll be there cheering them on.
"It’s sad," Arbalaez said of the end of his high school career. "But at the same time, I still have to support my teammates and be there for them and not show that I’m sad about it."
The only real cure for that sadness is joy. And while their wins won’t cure their injured star’s knee, if the Spartans win a state title, Arbalaez certainly won’t feel any more pain.
Jonathan Zopf is a sports reporter for The Times. His column appears Mondays during spring.