BY DAVID FRIEDLANDER
For The Times
There were plenty of opportunities for Greater Atlanta Christian to become frustrated during its Class AAA state boys soccer semifinal match against West Hall.
But even after falling behind by a goal early in the second half, the No. 2 state-ranked Spartans kept their cool.
And that composure paid off during a fast-paced six-minute stretch in the final half, allowing GAC to vault back in front and pull away late to down fourth-ranked West Hall 3-1 in Norcross.
Damola Salami and Matthew Taylor were right in the middle of the second-half scoring binge.
The former scoring twice and the latter adding a goal and an assist to send the Spartans (19-3) to the Class AAA state championship match, where they will take on No. 5 Oconee County at 7:30 p.m. next Wednesday at McEachern High School's Walter H. Cantrell Stadium.
But it was the combined team effort in staying poised in the face of some adversity, plus a talented West Hall (17-5-1) squad that had GAC coach Thomas Jacquet most pleased.
“(West Hall) was frustrating to us,” Jacquet said. “It was a difficult game. I think both of us could've broken (the other) down. It was a chess match, and … we were going to either respond well or we weren't. And I thought our response was terrific. I really do.”
The first bit of adversity the host Spartans ran into came just 12 minutes after the opening kickoff, when it looked like Taylor had given them the lead after running down a nifty through by Justin Moore, popped the ball over West Hall goalkeeper Diego Chacon when he came off his line and tapped the ball into the open net.
However, Moore had made his pass moments after taking a bouncing ball off his face, and the head referee ruled that the ball glanced off his arm when he attempted to shield it for a handball call that negated the goal.
Then after the first half ended still scoreless, GAC got some more misfortune less than five minutes into the second half.
Guillermo Ibarra booted a free kick from 40 yards out right on goal that Spartans goalkeeper Parker Wagnon made the initial save on.
But before he could pounce on the rebound, Alejandro Lemus banged home the rebound to put West Hall up 1-0 with 35:35 left in the game.
However, it didn't take long for GAC – and more specifically, Taylor – to get a chance at the equalizer when a West Hall defender was whistled for a studs-up tackle inside the penalty area nearly five and a half minutes later.
And the senior buried the ensuing penalty kick to knot the score at 1-all with 29:08 remaining.
“Soccer is about every step,” Taylor said. “Every single step you take, you've got to be focused on it. Every touch on the field, every pass, every shot. I got a chance to be right in front of goal – me and the keeper.”
Perhaps more importantly, Taylor's goal gave himself and his teammates a boost of energy that was manifested in offense just under a minute later after he dispossessed a West Hall defender near the top of the 23-yard arc.
Taylor immediately sent the ball toward the left wing, where Salami made a diagonal run into the penalty area before blasting a shot into the upper right corner of the net to give GAC its first lead of the night at 2-1 with 28:17 left.
It was a shot that Salami said was helped by the experience of playing before with Chacon.
“He's my club goalkeeper, so I play with him almost every single week,” Salami said of his 30th goal of the season. “We know each other pretty well, but it was just picking a spot when the opportunity came.”
Salami got another chance to pick a spot in the game's 73rd minute and took the opposite tack off a set piece following a West Hall foul from about 25 yards out just to the left of the arc.
The senior sent the ensuing free kick over the West Hall wall and bent it inside the upper left corner for a 3-1 GAC lead with just 7:38.
And the Spartans made sure West Hall wouldn't get any quality scoring chances the rest of the game to earn their first trip to the state finals since winning the Class AA title in 2015.