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High school soccer: Top-ranked Johnson's boys fend off scrappy Chestatee for 11th straight win
Johnson's Isaiah Glez goes for a header against Chestatee on March 14, 2023 in Gainesville. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

The final score of Tuesday’s Region 8-4A boys soccer match between state and national-powerhouse Johnson and Chestatee belied just how close it really was for most of the night.

In the end, goals by Justin Silva and Juliann Pimental in the final 18 minutes helped the Knights break the game open for a 3-0 victory at the chilly Lynn Cottrell Complex, and very much live up to their Class 4A No. 1 state ranking and current No. 2 ranking in the United Soccer Coaches’ national poll.

However, the host War Eagles also showed that their current No. 4 state ranking was also well earned, due in no small part to goalkeeper David Diaz, who tallied 11 saves, several in spectacular fashion.

They certainly earned the respect of Johnson (11-0, 5-0) coach Frank Zamora, whose team earned the hard-fought win.

“We knew that they were going to come out with energy,” Zamora said of Chestatee (10-3, 6-2). “They’re well coached. (Chestatee) Coach (Michael) Herrin had them ready to play. We knew they were going to come out strong. Our plan was to withhold their pressure early on, and then settle into our game, move the ball and get opportunities.”

The War Eagles did bring the pressure in the early minutes, including a golden scoring opportunity in the match’s sixth minute when Giovanny Gomez sent a well-placed free kick from the right wing 30 yards out into the penalty area that gave Nick Felix a near-point blank one-touch shot toward the back post.

But Knights goalkeeper Kristian Hernandez made a brilliant kick save of his own to keep the game scoreless.

Nonetheless, the sequence was an indication that Chestatee was going to put up a ferocious fight.

“We had four shots in the first 10 minutes,” Herrin said. “If one of those goes in, it certainly changes the tone. … I told the guys, ‘We can play against these guys.’ These (two teams) know each other.

“Johnson is No. 1 in our class, No. 2 in the state (all-class rankings) and No. 2 in the nation for a reason right now. … Our guys, in a game like this, we know we were in the game. That’s the key thing.”

Unfortunately for the War Eagles, Hernandez was just as solid between the pipes for Johnson as Diaz was for them by snuffing out those four early shots to give the Knights a chance to gather themselves.

They gradually did just that as the first half progressed before they finally broke through late in the match’s 38th minute.

Pimental moved in from the left wing before sending a pass across the turf into the penalty area, where Ramon Aguilar finished the play to put Johnson up 1-0 with 2:08 left in the first half.

The game stayed that way through intermission until a critical sequence that saw dramatic shifts in momentum over just a few seconds in the 62nd and 63rd minutes.

With 18:17 remaining, Johnson’s Christian Robles was taken down in the penalty area and awarded a penalty kick, and a chance to give his team some breathing room.

But Diaz gave Chestatee what appeared to be a huge momentum boost by knocking the save away to keep the War Eagles’ deficit at just one goal.

But just 28 seconds later, Silva got to a deflected clearing attempt at the top of the 18-yard mark and buried a shot inside the near post that Diaz couldn’t get to, shifting momentum back to the Knights with a 2-0 lead with 17:49 to play.

And Johnson grabbed a stranglehold on that momentum and never let go, particularly after capitalizing on another scoring chance with some extra effort less than seven minutes later.

Edgar Vazquez’s free kick form 30 yards out on the left wing was partially deflected and looked like it would roll out of bounds for a goal kick.

But Josue Mendoza hustled to keep the ball form rolling over the end line and send a perfect pass just in front of the goal box, where Pimental was able to hammer it home for a 3-0 Knights lead with 10:57 to play.

“We just settled down after (Chestatee’s) initial energy, their initial press,” Zamora said. “We were able to move the ball side-to-side, and once you start moving the ball side-to-side, you create those opportunities. We were a little more dangerous late in the first half (and into the second) just moving the ball around and playing our style.”

Hernandez recorded another clean sheet in the game, marking the eighth straight shutout for the senior goalkeeper and the Knights, who are back in action Friday with their first home match in three weeks when they take on Cherokee Bluff in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

Chestatee, meanwhile, faces another tough test by welcoming eighth-ranked East Hall to the Lynn Cottrell Center on Friday, also with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

JOHNSON GIRLS 7, CHESTATEE 0: Liz Rivera scored four goals and added two assists as the Lady Knights (7-2-1, 5-0) rolled to the Region 8-4A victory.

Skyler Robinson added a goal and an assist, while Adie Ramirez and Nancy Torres chipped in a goal apiece and Gissel Garcia and Shelby Robinson each contributed an assist.

Lottie Landers made one save to post the fifth shutout of the season for Johnson, which returns home to play No. 2 Cherokee Bluff on Friday at 5:30 p.m
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