As if there isn’t enough for Johnson’s boys to think about as they try for their second straight state championship in the Class 4A title game, a little extra was added on Tuesday.
That’s when the latest United Soccer Coaches national rankings was released, with the Knights (20-0) at the top of the poll at No. 1.
But while some coaches might consider such an honor on the eve of the season’s ultimate match an unwelcome distraction, Johnson’s Frank Zamora has a much more positive view as his top-ranked, both statewide and nationally, Knights prepare to take on No. 2 Westminster (17-4-1) Thursday at McEachern High School’s Walter H. Cantrell Stadium in Powder Springs.
In fact, rather than a distraction, he sees it giving his players, particularly the seniors, a little extra incentive.
Those seniors were freshmen on the 2020 team that got off to an 8-0 and ascended to the No. 1 spot in the same United Soccer Coaches national poll before the COVID-19 pandemic brought high school athletics, and a lot more, to a screeching halt.
So the chance for the team to seize an opportunity it never got a chance to see through three years ago is something Zamora sees as a positive.
“I think it’s definitely exciting,” Zamora said. “The boys are pumped and excited to see the rankings. We’ve talked about it all season. That’s something the boys have kept up with.
“It just adds to the excitement of the week. The boys understand they have a unique opportunity. … For the senior class, they definitely see that … unique opportunity that we talked about.”
Indeed, the Knights are very much in tune for the new opportunity that has presented itself, one that goes even beyond adding a Class 4A state title to the one they won in Class 5A last year, as well as finishing off a perfect undefeated and untied season.
It’s a chance for the seniors to finish what they started four seasons ago.
“My freshman year, we had such a good team, but the season was cut short,” recalled senior midfielder and team captain Jorge Sandoval. “Now we have another opportunity, something we’ve talked about all season. It’s a chance to (finish) undefeated, to be state champions back-to-back and to be No. 1 in the nation.”
If that also sounds like a lot of pressure, there’s at least one Johnson senior who doesn’t necessarily disagree with that assessment.
However, midfielder Christian Robles insists that it’s a good kind of pressure that he and his Knights teammates welcomes and refused to back down from.
“It just shows how far we’ve come from (the freshman season),” Robles said. “I feel like we’ve worked hard to work so we can finish what we started. … It definitely puts a lot of pressure on us as seniors, (but) I would say it’s something we’re embracing. It kind of goes with the territory. Maybe it’s not so much pressure as excitement (about the chance) to bring that to Johnson.”
Of course, the Knights also know that Thursday will be a championship match, not a coronation.
And given Westminster’s own history – the Wildcats have won 14 state titles, including the first two back in 1966 and 1967 and three straight both from 2011-13 and 2017-19 – and a 2023 season in which its only four losses and one tie have come against out of state competition, the Knights know they will have to earn a victory on Thursday.
“Westminster is right up there with the best in the state,” Zamora said. “Their coach (Scott Snyder) is phenomenal, and he’ll have their boys ready to play.”