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High school soccer: Top-ranked Johnson boys relishing another clash of the titans with trip to second-ranked Dalton
Johnson's Ramon Aguilar (7) waits for the ball against Seckinger during the game Feb. 28 in Buford. Photo courtesy Leilani Castillo For The Times

On paper, Johnson’s boys soccer match at Dalton on Friday night at 6:30 is just another midseason non-region match.

In more practical terms, it is a lot more, particularly with two of the top teams in the state of Georgia squaring off with each other in the regular season for the second straight year.

The defending Class 5A state champion Knights (9-0) enter the contest ranked No. 1 in Class 4A and No. 2 in’s state all-classification poll, while the 2022 6A state runner-up Catamounts (9-1) currently stand at No. 2 in 5A and No. 5 in all classifications.

“We schedule teams like Dalton … to be able to measure up against one of the best (team) not only in the state, but in the nation, and be able to learn from those experiences and develop (our) younger players,” Johnson coach Frank Zamora said.

Players from both teams learned quite a bit when they last met on the pitch at Johnson a year ago almost to the day.

The Knights were able to overcome a 3-1 first half deficit to score a 5-4 victory on Jorge Sandoval’s goal in the 77th minute in front of a raucous crowd that provided the atmosphere of a postseason game.

It was a watershed moment for the team that helped set the stage for its run to last year’s state title, as well as a No. 4 ranking in the final United Soccer Coaches’ national poll a year ago, by making it more confident on such a large stage.

“That feeling of pressure we had going into the game, that was strong,” recalled senior midfielder Christian Robles. “When we went down (3-1), I just feel like (with) that experience from last year, we know how to handle it better this year, especially now that (the team’s core is now) all seniors.

“I’m pretty confident in my team right now. We’ve been practicing good. We’ve built up the chemistry.”

And with the atmosphere figuring to be just as emotionally-charged as the scene switches to Dalton on Friday, Sandoval, one of several Johnson players who played in last year’s game returning to the team this year, is expecting more of the same heading into the rematch.

“I think it’s going to be a similar game,” the senior midfielder/forward and 2022 Times Boys Soccer Player of the Year said. “It’s going to be intense, it’s going to be a lot of emotions and lots of work for both sides. So, I think it’s going to be a good battle, a good challenge for us.”

While the atmosphere will likely be very similar to last year’s meeting with Dalton, there will be some differences, aside from a few roster changes for each team due to graduation of some seniors and the addition of new players.

Senior strike Ramon Aguilar agrees with Robles that the Knights will need fewer adjustments to playing on such a bright spotlight since they come in with a lot more individual and team confidence.

“We feel more confident and ready for this game,” Aguilar said. “Last year, we (came in) a little nervous (because) we’d never seen a team like Dalton. But this year, I feel like we’re ready for them again.”

While remembering the experience of winning last year’s match is a positive, the Knights also know that game is now in the past.

They also know it will take just as much in terms of effort to beat the Catamounts again, though perhaps a different method.

While Zamora was pleased to be able to put up five goals against a team as good as Dalton, he knows they can’t necessarily count on being able to do so again.

So, a big key, as far as he’s concerned, is being able to tighten up on the defensive end of the field to give capitalizing on scoring opportunities more of a chance to be decisive.

“Even tough (Dalton) did graduate a couple of their (key) players, so did we,” Zamora said. “But they’re so talented. They’re a team very similar to us. We reload every year. … They’re the same. They’re attack-minded, as well. They love to attack and score goals, and so do we. So, I’m expecting nothing less than a back-and-forth game, two attacking teams going at it.

“We’ve done well defensively this season. We’ve only conceded three goals up to this point, and I’m hoping that we can keep it that way. But (with) just the nature of both teams, anything can happen. You have players (if) you give them some time and some space, they can bury one in the back of the net, for sure.”

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