After playing so many games either decided by one goal or in extra time of a shootout, a three-goal margin of victory must seem like a luxury to East Hall’s boys soccer team.
Yet even in a 3-0 victory over Region 8-4A foe Cherokee Bluff on Tuesday night at Yonah Field, the fifth-ranked Vikings had to work for it.
After being hemmed in their own defensive end much of the first half, the tide turned for East Hall on a fortunate bounce off a Jonathan Torres shot just past the midpoint of the opening frame.
The junior then added two more goals in the second half to help put the Vikings (11-2, 6-1) in strong position in the region race, just a game behind top-ranked Johnson, heading into the home stretch of the regular season next week.
But it took a little while for them to get in that position, thanks to a strong effort from Cherokee Bluff (6-8, 4-3) that created territorial control throughout most of the first half.
“They’re very well coached year after year,” East Hall coach Chris Henry said of the Bears. “They’re very organized. They know how they want to play, and they stick to it, and the make it very difficult for you.
“We certainly came out very flat, and they took it to us those first 20 minutes. We had to kind of survive a little bit (until) we kind of realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got to step up because they are a good team.’”
Perhaps the biggest wake-up call came just before the midway point of the opening frame when Jackson Davenport came in with a shot on the left wing that first rang off the near post, then off Vikings goalkeeper Kenny Barrera-Paz and off the near post again.
But with that bullet dodged, momentum swung in the match’s 27th minute, when Torres sent what at first appeared to be an innocent-looking shot on goal, only to find the back of the net after deflecting off a Cherokee Bluff defender for a 1-0 lead that East Hall took into intermission.
Then in the second half, Torres struck again about eight minutes in, this time more forcefully.
The junior took a pass from Yerli Mejia and found his way to the top of the 18-yard mark, where he slipped a hard shot inside the near post to extend the Vikings lead to 2-0 with 32:25 remaining.
A little less than 12 minutes later, Torres gave them even more breathing room.
This time, he finished off a feed from Alan Mata to gain the hat trick and extend the East Hall lead to 3-0 with 20:51 remaining, and Barrera-Paz and Alex Perez combined for the seventh shutout for Vikings goalkeeping this season.
Such a large lead has been rare so far this season for the Vikings, who have won five games either in overtime or in a penalty-kick shootout, plus two other games in regulation by a single goal.
Those wins should prove valuable as they close out the regular season next week with a Senior Night game against North Hall at Valhalla on Tuesday before travelling to Johnson on Friday for what could be a showdown for the region title with the No. 2 nationally-ranked and undefeated Knights.
But Henry admits that Tuesday’s win with a little cushion for the first time in the team’s last five games dating back to Feb. 21 was something of a relief.
“We knew (Tuesday’s match) was going to be tough,” Henry said. “We’ve honestly found ourselves in close games all year. We typically don’t score a whole lot of goals. We create a lot of stuff, but we’ve struggled to finish this year.
“We’ve played five overtime games this year, three of which have gone to PKs and we’ve won all of them. As frustrating as that can be as a coach against some times that we felt like we should’ve handled a little bit easier, through that, we have developed an identity. When we’re in a close game, we know how to play in those games. Obviously, we’d love to be up early every game, but we know when it comes down to playoff time, if we go on a deep run like we hope to do, there are no blowout games, and we are going to find ourselves in those tough games, and we’re going to have to grind it out.”
CHEROKEE BLUFF GIRLS 10, EAST HALL 0: Kaitlin Cook scored a natural hat trick early in the first half as the No. 3 Lady Bears (13-1, 7-0) rolled to the Region 8-4A victory Tuesday.
Cherokee Bluff got goals from a total of seven different players - Alyssa Stringer, Amelia Dovie, Sophie Recinella, Naomi Cornett, Eva Martin, Genesis Gamez and Carson DeMars - to set up a showdown for the region title Friday at top-ranked North Oconee.
Stringer also added three assists, while Anna Gessner, Dovie, Cornett, Martin Gamez and DeMars contributed one assist apiece.
Cook’s hat trick also gave her 93 for her career, with a good chance for the Georgia Southern-committed junior to reach the century mark before the state playoffs.
Avery Fowler posted Bears' ninth shutout of the season in goal.