It came with perhaps a little more drama than preferred, but Johnson’s boys soccer team has its back-to-back state championships.
Edgar Vazquez’s second goal of the game off a free kick in the 66th minute proved to be the game winner, and senior captain Jorge Sandoval added an insurance goal with one second left as the Knights secured the title, and perhaps more, with a 4-2 win over No. 2 Westminster on Thursday night at Walter H. Cantrell Stadium in Powder Springs.
The championship combines with the 5A championship last year and in 2018 to give Johnson (21-0) three titles in the last five completed seasons.
And with the Knights currently sitting at No. 1 in the current United Soccer Coaches rankings, it’s hard to imagine any other team being crowned as national champions.
But those accolades, current and perhaps future, didn’t come without some tense moments, after Johnson let an early 2-0 lead slip again, and got a challenge from Westminster (17-5-1) that no other team had presented this season.
“These boys go through a lot of adversity, a lot of challenges on and off the field,” Johnson coach Frank Zamora said. “At that point, the senior class, the leadership they showed, they took the (younger) guys under their wings. We were in a similar situation last year (in a 4-2 win over St. Pius X in the 5A title game), when we were tied. Then in the last couple of minutes, we did our thing, and the boys played amazing. I’m real proud of them, for sure.”
Early on, it looked like Johnson might not need to come up clutch late
It didn’t take long – just over three and a half minutes after the opening kickoff, to be exact – for the Knights to get going, courtesy of an outstanding individual effort from Vazquez.
The junior got a step on his defender to make a run down the right wing before firing a bullet of a shot from just at the top of the penalty area.
Westminster goalkeeper Lucas Searl made the initial save, but Vazquez hustled to collect his own rebound and send a diagonal shot to his left that found the inside of the near post to put the Knights up 1-0 with 36:20 left in the first half.
Vazquez was at it again just 12 minutes later to help Johnson pad its lead.
This time, he took a pass from Ramon Aguilar and made a run up the middle before threading the needle on a through ball to Daniel Trujillo, who sent a nifty left-footer inside the near post for a 2-0 lead with 24:06 left in the half.
However, Westminster struck back less than two minutes later with a well-placed shot of its own.
Campbell Hann sent a shot from 30 yards out that slipped just under the crossbar, pulling the Wildcats to within 2-1 with 22:25 remaining in the half.
Westminster then got another opening just over three minutes into the second half when a Johnson foul right at the top of the penalty area was ruled to have occurred inside the penalty area.
Noah Cooney then converted the ensuing penalty kick, and Johnson suddenly found themselves in a 2-2 tie in a game in which an opponent had scored more than one goal against it for the first time all season.
But with the Wildcats keeping the pressure on, the Knights turned to senior leaders like Sandoval and goalkeeper Kristian Hernadez to keep the team from losing its collective poise.
“It was difficult because we knew (Westminster) would come out with intensity,” Hernandez said. “I feel like we lost focus for a little bit, … but after that, we picked it up and got it back.”
Finally, in the match’s 66th minute, the Knights got another opening with a foul just two yards outside the penalty area just to the left of the center of the field.
And it was the hot foot of Vazquez who stepped up with a little improvisation by eschewing the intended set piece on the ensuing free kick.
“Usually, we run a play that close,” Vazquez said. “But I was just like, ‘I’m going to shoot it. I made it before.’ I was just feeling it.”
Those instincts proved to be correct, as his rocket of a shot deflected slightly off a defender in the Westminster wall 10 yards away and sailed under the crossbar to give Johnson the lead back at 3-2 with 14:17 remaining.
The Wildcats tried to respond by once again applying pressure, but this time, the Knights were up to the task, especially Hernandez, who made two clutch saves – one by punching a prime scoring chance over the crossbar in the 67th minute and another with a diving save three minutes later.
Then with Johnson controlling possession and territorial position and the clock winding down, Sandoval added the exclamation point by popping a shot from the left wing over a leaping Searl for a goal with one second remaining.
And after the ensuing kickoff, the Knights ran up to thank the large contingent of fans who traveled form Oakwood to join in celebration of their monumental feat.
“This is like a dream come true,” Sandoval said minutes after the 82nd and final goal of his Johnson career clinched the title. “It’s what I asked for. It’s what I dreamed of. … This is great in front of the fans that have been supporting us all four years. It’s amazing to be here. I’m blessed.”