In recent years, Hall County has been a producer of top-tier high school soccer teams.
This year is no different.
In Class AAA, the boys' side has two teams, Johnson and Gainesville, inside the state's top five. The undefeated Knights (8-0) are ranked No. 3, and the defending state champion Red Elephants (6-1) are No. 4, according to the
EuroSportScoreboard.com coaches poll.
Both schools are prime candidates to continue a trend of Hall County schools advancing deep in the state playoffs. In addition to Gainesville winning the Class AAA title last year, West Hall's boys and North Hall's girls each played for a state title two seasons ago; the Johnson boys advanced to the quarterfinals in 2005; and Flowery Branch's boys have numerous quarterfinals appearances.
"The talent base in Hall County is tremendous," Knights coach Brian Shirley said. "We go deeper than most other counties in the state. Forsyth, Cobb and Gwinnett might be the only counties with better talent."
Red Elephants coach Richard Howard agrees.
"We have very quality players that play year-round in competitive leagues, and that helps us because they're always working on their game," Howard said. "And we have a good mix of cultures, and with a very strong club system and well-organized players, it produces a unique and skillful brand of soccer."
Though there are other solid 8-AAA teams like Oconee County, Walnut Grove and Chestatee, Johnson and Gainesville have been the most impressive thus far. All signs point to their April 15 matchup at Gainesville having serious implications on who wins the region title. It will be the next-to-last game of the regular season for both teams.
"They're good and they're doing a good job," Howard said. "They lost more than we did graduation-wise and that's a tribute to how well-trained and developed their talent is.
"I look forward to that game, because it's a good test to see where we are."
Johnson, which qualified for the AAA playoffs last year, is off to a strong start despite the loss of 2010 Times All-Area selections Chris Henry and Inmer Vanegas and second-teamers Vicente Trujillo and goalkeeper Luis Carrero.
Seniors Edgar Ochoa and Juan Morfin have become team leaders and play a major role in the Knights' ability to dominate control of possession in the midfield to create a well-orchestrated attack that usually leads to a lot of good looks at goal. In their first eight games, the Knights have outscored the competition 38-4 on the way to four shutouts.
"It's tough to replace some of that talent, but we're playing well as a team and that's the big thing," Shirley said.
Gainesville has outscored its competition 34-4, with the Red Elephants' only blemish a 2-0 loss to AAAAA's Mill Creek. They lost All-Area team members Russ Puckett, Monish Lahiry, Marco Monreal and Player of the Year Irving Salgado. But captains Charlie Bryant, Nathan Dillard, Aiden Reising and Gabriel Osorio have kept Gainesville in line to defend it state title.
"I like our development," Howard said. "We're building our team and I feel like the future is in our hands. But I don't even want to talk about state, I just want to make the playoffs."
Making the playoffs out of 8-AAA will be a challenge, and winning the region is a major statement, Shirley believes.
"Any team that comes out of the top four of our region has the opportunity to really make some noise (at state)," Shirley said. "Because we have six to eight teams that would qualify for state if they were in different regions. That's how deep we are.
"So winning the region with the quality of teams we have would be tremendous."
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.