Johnson’s boys soccer team now has everyone’s attention in Class AAA.
Scanning the first round results from the tournament bracket, the Knights’ 10-0 trouncing of Troup County sticks out more than any other match. No other team in AAA recorded a mercy rule win, though Grovetown beat Crisp County 9-0, and St. Pius X won its match over Heritage (Catoosa) 6-0.
I always wonder when a team opens the playoffs with such a convincing win, if it can’t help but to start looking too far ahead, or get too full of themselves. I’ve interviewed players after state playoff games in the past, and it’s been evident before that was the case.
But not with these Knights, champions of Area 8 and the state’s fourth-ranked team.
They sold me on staying focused on the task at hand. They didn’t look at Troup as an inferior opponent they could bully. They didn’t showboat. They took Troup seriously, and didn’t take their foot off the gas until there was 16 minutes remaining in the game.
That’s when the Knights’ 10th goal was scored, and the game ended.
“We couldn’t let up,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said after the game. “They knew they had to rise up and not get sucked in to playing another team’s game, and they did a very good job. I thought we possessed the ball well and we finished our chances. We showed our depth tonight — I think we went 23 to 24 players deep — and played a lot of young kids, so we got them some experience as well.”
It was important for the Knights to get momentum on their side early in the playoffs. Granted, Troup was vulnerable, as its school in LaGrange was significantly impacted by last week’s tornado. Power outages and damaged roads led to the school’s closing for two days, and the team hadn’t practiced since Tuesday.
But Johnson is also dealing with its share of problems, like not having one of its best players in Juan Morfin. The senior striker has missed the Knight’s last nine games, Friday’s included, with a broken foot.
In Morfin’s absence, the Knights have been forced to adapt on the fly, and in the thick of the season.
But Shirley believes they couldn’t have responded any better.
“Everybody has stepped up, freshmen all the way to seniors,” he said. “They’ve all done their part and then some to make up for the loss of Juan. I couldn’t ask for any better effort whatsoever from the guys.”
It was evident Friday that Johnson was playing some its best soccer of the season. Regardless of Troup’s vulnerable state, the Knights were moving the ball efficiently, playing unselfishly and executing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.
Now comes a much stiffer challenge.
The Knights (15-3) must go from playing a Troup team that had a losing record heading into the playoffs (7-10), to playing the state’s No. 2 team. Woodward Academy (13-3) beat Cedartown 3-0 on Friday, setting up a top-five showdown in just the second round. The Knights and Woodward will play at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Woodward comes from Area 5, where it finished second to the state’s No. 1 team, St. Pius (16-0-1).
If Johnson can get past Woodward, Grovetown — the other team with a huge first-round victory — could be waiting for the Knights.
Getting past Woodward won’t be easy, of course. But at least it’s evident the Knights will be more than ready for the challenge, which will take place in front of the home crowd. And there’s a chance, though Shirley implied not a good one, Morfin will be ready to play.
If Morfin can’t go Friday, the Knights have proven they can win big games without him. Beating Gainesville 2-1 on April 15 in what was essentially the 8-AAA title game was pivotal. While the Knights have a tough enough task ahead, the defending state champion Red Elephants are stuck playing St. Pius in the second round.
Given the circumstances, I believe if the state championship trophy returns to Hall County for a second year in a row, it’s Johnson that has the best chance of bringing it home.
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.