Thursday will hopefully be one of the biggest nights in soccer history for East Hall’s and Johnson’s boys programs.
The fourth-ranked Vikings (15-4-1) are facing No. 1 Southeast Whitfield (16-0-3) for the championship in Class 4A, while the No. 4 Knights (16-3-1) will play second-ranked McIntosh (21-1) for the top prize in Class 5A. East Hall’s match starts at 8 p.m. at Duluth High, while Johnson will play at the same time at McEachern High in Powder Springs.
A great line of defense is exactly what any team needs for a championship run. In soccer, the last line of defense always comes down to the goalie.
Steven Flores has been the Johnson High anchor all season. When the Knights (16-3-1) takes the field at 8 pm against McIntosh High in Cobb County, Flores will be taking his position between the pipes for the 22nd consecutive time this season.
Johnson head coach Frank Zamora has watched Flores be a critical member of this teams Class 5A GHSA state playoff run. Zamora needs one more solid run against the Indians.
“McIntosh is a very good team,” Zamora said. “They are fast and physical. Every year, they are state contenders.”
McIntosh (21-1) is coming off a 3-2 double-overtime victory over Blessed Trinity on Tuesday.
East Hall coach Mark Wade believes his program’s match against Southeast Whitfield will pit two teams with similar strengths against one another. The Vikings are a defensive-minded squad that can attack, as evidenced by Tuesday’s 1-0 win against Islands in the state semifinals, which are things that Southeast Whitfield also does effectively.
As a result, East Hall fans should hope for it to remain a low-scoring contest, if it hopes to win.
The most notable item about the state championships for soccer is that these programs are playing on one-day rest.
Location of the neutral-site could play in the favor of East Hall, which will have to travel only 30 miles to Duluth.
Southeast Whitfield, meanwhile, is in the northwest corner of the state and about a three-hour ride for its players, coaches and fans.
The Knights, seeking their first state title since 2018, needed extra time and penalty kicks for a 3-2 win over Woodward Academy in the semifinals. Flores was in the middle of the win.
He helped the Knights gain some confidence saving the first penalty kick from the War Eagles. Johnson then went on to outscore the War Eagles 5-3 on PK’s.
“He has come in and taken ownership on that backline,” Zamora said of Flores. “All throughout the playoffs he has been really good.”
Johnson has traditionally had some reliable goalkeepers. Flores has more than 40 saves in 22 games in his first full season as a goalie. The senior keeper focused on solely taking the position after last season. Prior to earning a varsity spot, Flores played the field and was a goalkeeper on the junior varsity team.
Flores was the Knights’ team manager when it last won it all three seasons ago.
“It was different experience,” he said. “I want to thank God for that opportunity.”
Zamora added, “This year, he gets to experience it as a starting goalie.”
The opportunity was nearly dashed in the first half earlier this week.
Flores left the game after saving a ball in traffic. He lost balance in the air hitting his head on the ground. The game continued as Flores tried to shake things off. It did not work and the referee stopped the game to have the trainer come and see him.
He left the game with his team tied 1-1.
“No coach wants to lose any of their players, especially the starting goalkeeper,” Zamora said. “When I saw him fall and he didn’t come up, I was concerned. “
Woodward Academy then took a 2-1 lead. All that the time Flores, was on the sideline being evaluated. Everyone was keeping an eye on his condition. When would Flores come back into the game?
“I realized when I went out, my teammates needed me,” he said.
Flores told Zamora he was ready to get back in, with the trainers approval. Zamora looked at his experienced keeper and sent him back to the pit.
The crowd erupted.
With him on the field, Johnson looked a lot more confident. Things were back to normal for them.
Flores held off Woodward Academy. He then provided the first shot of confidence during the PK’s to put the confidence underneath his teammates wings.
As the crowd chanted his name, Flores drew strength from the community. They chanted his name before he tuned them out and opened the penalty kicks with a save. He beat his chest. His teammates each cheered him on from afar, while the crowd went ballistic.
“It was nerve-racking,” said Flores of the save. “Good thing I saved it.”
It certainly was a good thing: the last line of defense propelled Johnson to the state championship match.
Now, we are 24 hours from having two soccer state championships coming home to Hall County.