A season removed from winning the Class 5A state championship, the Johnson High boys soccer team isn’t satisfied yet.
A come-from-behind, 2-1 victory over Fayette County on Wednesday in the 5A quarterfinals has Johnson back in the semis, with a road matchup against Starr’s Mill on Tuesday at 7 p.m. the last obstacle between them and the finals. But the Knights still have plenty left to prove.
“Teams from the Atlanta area like McIntosh, St. Pius have been back-to-back champions,” Johnson senior Tony Maldonado said. “We want to do the same thing. A lot of people look down on us just because where we’re from. We want to go out, make a statement and be back-to-back champions.”
Maldonado’s teammate, junior Jose Gomez, finished off the thought.
“Create a dynasty,” he said.
Winning has quickly become the standard for a Johnson soccer program that has grown into the school’s most consistently successful team. In addition to last year’s championship, the Knights also made a state finals appearance following the 2016 season when they were still in the 4A classification.
The success has painted a target on the backs of the Johnson players, and according to coach Brian Shirley, the Knights always get their opponent’s best shot.
“Any team is going to raise their level of play against a state champion,” Shirley said. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in the work rate of the teams that we’ve played. They want to come out and make a statement and knock good teams off, which any team would want to do.”
Still, Johnson always seems to find a way to win.
The team carries a 12-game unbeaten streak into next week’s game, a span that dates back to early March. Its most recent win over Fayette County came in dramatic fashion, as the Knights were forced to battle back from a halftime deficit and advance off a pair of second-half goals.
Despite the trying experience, the Johnson players never doubted the outcome.
“I went to a state championship as a freshman,” Maldonado said. “I played in a state championship last year. The rest of the playoffs, it’s helped us a lot with all the experience. We went down a goal against Fayette County, but came back because of experience.”
The ultimate goal is, of course, to repeat as state champions, but Johnson’s next obstacle comes in the form of a Starr’s Mill team that has paralleled the Knights throughout the year. Both teams only lost two games during the regular season — the most recent loss coming on March 8 for each squad. Johnson and Starr’s Mill have outscored their playoff opponents 15-1 and 14-0, respectively.
According to Shirley, the Panthers have “a couple of pretty dynamic playmakers we have to account for,” and also boast an experienced back line that has only allowed 14 goals all season.
“It’s going to be one of those games where it’s toe to toe, and whoever blinks first could give up a goal,” Shirley said.
Senior goalkeeper Cooper Bowen, who has recorded eight clean sheets in goal so far this year and let up only one goal in the team’s three playoff games, does not plan on being the one to make the first mistake.
With a maximum of only two games left in his career with the Knights, Bowen said he plans on making the most of limited time to make the statement that will resonate with the team for years to come: the Knights are here to stay.
“We want to prove the point that it wasn’t just a one-time thing, that we are a program at this point that’s working on building tradition and heritage and competing deep in the playoffs and even winning a couple,” Bowen said. “Winning back-to-back would mean everything to us.”