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High school soccer: Johnson boys use familiar script to pull away from North Oconee
Johnson's Andres Galicia dribbles through traffic during the top-ranked Knights' Region 8-4A win over North Oconee on March 28, 2023 in Oakwood. Photo by David Friedlander

Johnson’s boys soccer team seems to have developed a pattern to many of their matches of late, and Tuesday’s meeting with North Oconee seemed to fit the script.

The Class 4A top-ranked Knights spent a good portion of the first half kind of feeling out their opponent, before beginning to take control late in the half, including finally getting in the scoreboard, before finally taking a more aggressive stance in the second half to fully take control.

Eventually, Johnson pulled away in the final frame for a 3-0 victory at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium, setting up a winner-take-all showdown for the Region 8-4A title with fourth-ranked East Hall on Friday, also at the stadium affectionately called “The Dungeon.”

“That’s kind of our style, what we like to do,” Johnson coach Frank Zamora said of his Knights (15-0, 9-0), who remain ranked No. 1 in the latest state 4A poll and No. 3 nationally by “We like to move the ball around. Obviously, we score late in the first half or early in the second because by then, we’ve worn some of the opponents down.

“Some of our opponents come in with energy the first 10 (or) 15 minutes, and then they kind of sit. … We just move the ball side-to-side until we’re able to find those gaps and are able to convert on the opportunities we get.”

North Oconee (6-5, 5-3) controlled much of the territory in the opening 15 to 20 minutes, including getting a couple of prime scoring opportunities.

However, goalkeeper Kristian Hernandez made two of his three saves on the night during that stretch to keep the visiting Titans off the scoreboard and allow the Knights to finally get their rhythm and pace going.

“It’s always a wake-up call for us when other teams have early opportunities,” Zamora said. “(Hernandez) hasn’t been tested much (this season), but when he has, he’s been able to respond and keep clean sheets. (Then) we were able to rally and fix some of the mistakes early and be able to dominate possession later in the half.”

Johnson was finally able to cash in that advantage in possession with just over five and a half minutes left in the half, when Juliann Pimentel was able to stay onside long enough on Jorge Sandoval’s long ball up the middle before running past his defender.

That drew Riley Phelan off his line to try and cut the ball off and clear it, but Pimentel beat him to it and lobbed a shot over the North Oconee goalkeeper’s head and into the net for a 1-0 Johnson lead with 5:37 left until halftime.

It took less than seven minutes after intermission for the Knights to build on that momentum.

Edgar Vazquez beat his defender and was taken down in the box before burying the ensuing penalty kick underneath the crossbar to extend the lead to 2-0 with 33:15 remaining.

It looked like Vazquez had scored again in the 57th minute, only for the goal to be disallowed with the flag up for an offside call.

But less than seven minutes later, Johnson was on the board again, this time courtesy of Jalil Chavez, who found the back of the net with 26:16 remaining to extend the lead to 3-0.

And the Knights were able to cruise the rest of the way, allowing them to quickly shift their focus to Friday’s showdown with East Hall, a 10-0 winner over North Hall on Tuesday, in what figures to be a charged atmosphere.

“That’s what we aim for … to be able to create that environment for the boys,” Zamora said. “They love the big stage, … and East Hall is a quality opponent. We turn the page on North Oconee, and now we can focus on East Hall, and hopefully a region championship this Friday.

NORTH OCONEE GIRLS 3, JOHNSON 0: The Lady Knights (9-4-1, 7-2) fell victim to a pair of goals from the Class 4A top-ranked Lady Titans (13-0-2, 10-0).

While that early deficit was to big for them to overcome, they did recover to play a solid game behind solid goalkeeping from Lottie Landers, who made eight saves, and a stronger second-half effort.

“We just wanted to see if we could match up with a team of that caliber,” said Johnson girls coach Phil Higgins, whose team has already locked down the No. 3 seed from Region 8-4A in the upcoming state playoffs. “I think our girls fought hard. … I think this was a great game for us to play before we get to the playoffs.

“North Oconee is phenomenal. … They’re very dynamic, and for us to just kind of settle into the game shows we can learn as we go.”

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