The four area boys soccer teams that made the GHSA’s state playoffs have all reached the same point, and they’ll play in the quarterfinals tonight with the goal of a state title growing ever closer. But the paths taken by each team through the first two rounds of the postseason were different.
Southeast Whitfield has looked dominant with a pair of 5-0 wins in the first two rounds of the Class 3A bracket. North Murray, however, has advanced in tight fashion each time, winning each of its games in the 2A playoffs by a goal. Dalton won despite defensive mistakes in 5-3 and 3-1 victories in Class 3A, and Class 4A’s Northwest Whitfield is the only area team to play both its games on the road, as well as the only one to win a penalty-kick shootout.
In today’s matchups, Southeast coach Jamison Griffin leads his Raiders against visiting St. Pius X at 6:15 p.m. in a battle of region champs, North Murray welcomes Westminster at 7 p.m., Dalton is at Carrollton at 7:30 p.m. and Northwest is at Starr’s Mill at 7 p.m. in Fayetteville.
Carrollton (11-5-3) and Dalton (16-3) have been here before.
The two teams played last season in the second round, with the Catamounts winning 4-0, so Dalton knows it may be facing a team looking for payback.
“Our guys understand the game, and Carrollton has a lot of those players back,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “They understand the team will be out for revenge.”
Cheaves said there is a difference between this year and last year, though. He called Carrollton’s regular-season schedule “probably the toughest in all of Class 3A.
“Last season their record and ranking was great, but their schedule was not as great,” Cheaves added. “This season the ranking and record isn’t as great, but the team might be better.”
Dalton, the Region 7 runner-up, is ranked seventh in the eurosportscoreboard.com Class 3A coaches poll, while Region 6 champion Carrollton is No. 8.
To advance, the Cats might need to be better on defense. In their second-round win against Veterans, they scored an own goal in the first 15 minutes and had to dig themselves out of a deficit.
“There isn’t a lot of room for error in the back,” Cheaves said. “One mistake can cost you the game. Up front you can make mistakes all night and do one thing right and have a game winner.”
For North Murray (14-2), the 2011 Class 2A champs are the next obstacle.
Westminster (14-5-1) earned Region 6’s No. 3 seed this year and is ranked fifth in Class 2A. The Mountaineers — the Region 7 champs and the fourth-ranked team in 2A — and coach Matt Chambers see an opportunity to get recognition for their program by knocking off the Wildcats.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Chambers said. “Again, this is another big test for us. Hopefully we can pass and move on.”
Chambers referred to Westminster, an Atlanta private school, as “fundamentally sound in every position” and a deep team that controls the midfield.
“They spread the ball around, that true European style,” Chambers said. “We want to catch them with possession in the midfield, counterattack them and play incredible defense.”
North Murray’s 2-1 win against Dawson County in the first round was followed by a 1-0 win against Toombs County on Tuesday. Chambers thinks a better effort is needed tonight, though, and especially in making the most of scoring chances.
“Most of the (practice drills since then) were all about finishing and executing,” Chambers said. “The guys know they haven’t played their best the last two games.”
The way the Bruins (14-5) defeated Houston County in the second round could pay dividends moving forward. Northwest survived a shootout, winning 4-3 on penalty kicks after finishing regulation and overtime tied 2-2.
“You have that under your belt, knowing that we can overcome penalty kicks,” Bruins coach Ryan Scoggins said, noting that he “hates” having to decide a match in a shootout. “It’s mostly mental. It’s like a free throw in basketball. It’s not hard, but once you let all the outside stuff into your head, you start second-guessing.”
Starr’s Mill (16-2-2) is the Region 3 No. 2 seed and is ranked third in 4A. The Panthers play a 4-3-3 formation with a “talented” goal scorer up front, Scoggins said.
“We’re going to pay close attention to him,” Scoggins said. “We’ll definitely be aware of where he’s at. I’m not so sure we will change everything we do for him, though.”
Starr’s Mill, which won the 2010 title in a shootout against McIntosh, lost a shootout to Habersham Central in last year’s quarterfinals.
From 2002, the year Southeast earned its state playoff berth, to 2008, when the team finally broke through to the state championship game, the Raiders were stopped in either the first or second round. In three of those years — 2004, 2005 and 2006 — their season ended at the hands of Atlanta private school St. Pius X.
Include last season’s 3-1 loss in the semifinals to the Golden Lions (16-2-1), and you’ll understand part of the Raiders’ motivation for tonight.
“We’ve got some revenge (in mind), considering they knocked us out of the semifinals last season,” Southeast coach Jamison Griffin said. “We’ve played them in the playoffs more than any other team.”
St. Pius X (16-2-1) is the Region 5 champion and won last year’s Class 3A state title. Southeast is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A and the Golden Lions are ranked two spots lower.
Griffin called this matchup his team’s toughest test so far in this year’s playoffs, but one positive for the Raiders (16-0-2) is how they’ve played lately.
The Raiders — who haven’t been scored on in the past four games — have outscored opponents 10-0 in the playoffs, which Griffin believes shows that his team is in a “peaking” phase at the right time.
“A lot of coaches talk about peaking and hitting the magical climax in the end of the season,” Griffin said. “I don’t believe in that. You hit peaks and valleys in the season. We’ve won despite our peaks and valleys.
“Having to replace two key starters after the region schedule ended, that was a peak and valley that we endured. Now we have 11 guys on the field, and they are peaking.”