With a season-long winning streak and the Region 8-4A championship on the line, Johnson’s boys soccer team was determined not to wait long before making its move in Friday night’s showdown against East Hall.
The top-ranked Knights, also the Copa 985 champions who are ranked No. 3 nationally, put the pressure on early and often and rolled to a 4-0 victory over the fourth-ranked Vikings before a large and loud crowd at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
Edgar Vazquez netted a goal on a penalty kick in the game’s 11th minute and added a pair of assists to help Johnson (16-0, 10-0) wrap its ninth region championship since 2014, plus run their overall winning streak to 22 straight games dating back to last season.
And head coach Frank Zamora was pleased that last year's Class 5A state champions came out with a purpose from the opening kickoff.
“They were ready to play,” Zamora said of his players. “We did our thing. I’m very, very pleased with the performance of the boys. The atmosphere was great, and so I think that energized the boys to start early.
“We’re typically a second-half team (and) start later. … We came out a little stronger this time around, and it’s hard not to with the environment. You get the energy from the fans. … And we knew the sooner we scored, the sooner we’d be at ease and be able to move the ball.”
Both teams had some scoring chances in the early minutes, but it was Johnson that struck first when Vazquez powered his way past an East Hall (12-3, 8-2) defender and maneuvered his way into the penalty area on the left wing before being taken down and drawing a whistle for a foul.
The junior then buried the ensuing penalty kick into the upper left corner of the next inside the near post for a 1-0 Johnson lead with 29:11 left to go in the first half.
East Hall tried to answer quickly less than two minutes later when Yerli Mejia found himself with possession in the penalty area with a prime opportunity to pull the Vikings even.
However, Johnson goalkeeper Kristian Hernandez dove to bat down the hard shot, and then smothered the long rebound before the sophomore could get to keep his team’s lead intact.
The play also seemed to permanently shift momentum to the Knights.
“We had some opportunities early but could not convert,” East Hall coach Chris Henry said. “Obviously, the energy and everything involved with (Mejia’s shot), it does change (momentum). But it didn’t go in. (Johnson) converted their opportunities early, and that made it tough. It’s hard to dig a hole against a team like that and come back.”
That hole grew even bigger about 11 minutes later, and once again, Velazquez was at the center of the action.
About a minute after being robbed of a shot by East Hall goalkeeper Kenny Barrera, the junior got another chance on a run up the middle.
This time, however, instead of taking a long-range shot, Velazquez sent a through ball up the left side that Juliann Pimentel outraced his marker to before sending a bullet of a diagonal shot that glanced off the back post and in to extend the Johnson lead to 2-0 with 16:13 left in the first half.
Velazquez was at it again less than five minutes into the second half on a perfect give-and-go sequence with Jorge Sandoval, with the Knights’ captain burying another diagonal shot inside the near post to make the score 3-0 with 35:15 remaining.
Daniel Trujillo then connected on another penalty kick with 20:27 left, and the only question at that point was whether or not Johnson could keep East Hall scoreless.
Jonathan Torres gave the Vikings a great chance to get the Vikings on the scoreboard, only to see his well-placed free kick from 21 yards out punched over the crossbar by Hernandez, which helped the Knights to their fourth straight clean sheet and 12th in the last 13 games.
Up next, Johnson will host Central-Carrollton to open the state tournament April 14 at Billy Ellis Memorial.
East Hall will host Cedartown in the first round of the playoffs April 14.
JOHNSON GIRLS 3, EAST HALL 0: Genevieve Aguilar scored twice in the second half as the Lady Knights (10-4-1, 8-2) wrapped up their regular season with a win.
Nancy Torres got Johnson on the board in the first half, with Aguilar's two goals off assists from Skyler Robinson and Gissell Garcia respectively putting the game away in the second half.
The Lady Knights will travel to No. 7 Northwest Whitfield for its first-round Class 4A state playoff game on Thursday, April 13.