High School soccer: Johnson boys ready to meet the challenge of title defense in 2023

Jan. 26—Johnson has been among the gold standard in high school boys soccer in Hall County for several years.

After claiming its second Class 5A state championship in the past four seasons a year ago, which also came with a final No. 4 national ranking, the Knights enter the 2023 campaign among the gold standard far beyond the county.

That status also carries with it some high expectations, especially with several key players from last year's title team returning.

However, those high standards don't represent anything that head coach Frank Zamora and his Knights (21-1-1 in 2022) plan to run away from.

"The boys understand the pressure," Zamora said. "They understand the environment. As teenagers, you can imagine (how) it's a point of pride to be able to play here at Johnson and they're excited about the challenge."

Excitement is one thing, but Zamora knows it will take more than that for Johnson to clear the high bar it has set for itself.

For one thing, while the Knights move down one classification this spring, the revamped Region 8-4A they will be a part of is one of the most challenging they've ever played in.

Between Hall County foes Cherokee Bluff, a playoff team in 3A who fought to a 0-0 tie with Johnson last year, and East Hall, a 4A semifinalist a year ago, plus others like defending 8-4A champ and state quarterfinalist North Oconee and 3A quarterfinalist East Forsyth, there will be no shortage of challenges in the new region alignment.

And every opponent the Knights play this season will relish the opportunity to knock them off their perch.

"It's going to (take) focus and concentration every single game," Zamora said. "We're going to play (some) teams that we haven't played for region. We can't afford to have any slip-ups. We can't look past anybody.

"We're everybody's target, and we're going to get everybody's best. If we want to build on what we have and continue to make a deep run into the state (playoffs), we have to do the same thing. We have to give everybody our best and take every game one step at a time and focus on the opponent we have at hand

The good news is that Johnson will also have no shortage of weapons with which to do battle, starting with last season's Player of the Year, Jorge Sandoval.

The senior midfielder/forward is one of seven preseason Class 4A All-State selections by GeorgiaHighSchoolSoccer.com, with fellow seniors Ramon Aguilar (a striker), defender Landon Avalos and midfielder Christian Robles joining him on the first-team, while junior midfielder Andres Galicia and sophomores Daniel Trujillo (D) and Jalil Chavez (MF/F) earning honorable mention.

"That's huge," Zamora said. "Just having that much experience and depth in our roster definitely helps with the overall feeling and overall excitement, and being able to control some of that pressure.

"And for the younger guys being able to be around players like Jorge, Ramon, Christian and Landon — seniors who have been starters here for a while — it definitely comforts them to be surrounded by such high-level players, but also great leaders."

Zamora also has confidence on the ability of several newcomers to provide plenty of depth to the team's experienced leadership, something they demonstrated Wednesday in a resounding 5-0 win over Mountain View in their preseason scrimmage.

"I think we're pretty balanced, having some great defensive players and a lot of experience in our back line," Zamora said. "You combine that with individual players like Jorge and Ramon and some of the younger guys that are an attacking threat every chance they get, and I think we're going to be a pretty balanced team. We're excited to see how it kind of fits in."

Along with Johnson, East Hall and Cherokee Bluff, there are several other Hall County teams that could make some noise this spring, most notably West Hall.

The Spartans (17-4-1) will remain in Class 3A under first-year coach Jody Pinion this season after winning Region 7-3A and advancing all the way to the state semifinals in 2022.

And Pinion, whose coaching experience includes a tenure as an assistant at Lumpkin County and more than 20 years coaching club soccer, is very happy with the group he has to work with, which includes 11 returning players from last year's squad.

In fact, his hardest task may be choosing among his large talent pool to play at any given time.

"We are really blessed with a large number of extremely-talented soccer players," Pinion said. "Our cut list (from tryouts) was extremely difficult. I'll be honest with you, in 20-plus years I've ever had to cut (players), this is the hardest (time) I've ever had.

"So I feel really blessed to be here and to have the opportunity to coach them. ... When you're coaching kids that talented, it makes your job that much more fun. ... I'm not ready (to name this year's key players) because it's a new system that I'm breaking in as a new coach. And when they're coming off such a phenomenal season like they had last year, that's tricky bringing in a new system to something that's so successful. But I will say this. All the guys that are coming back ... have high expectations, and it's showed in the hard work they've put in during the preseason."

East Hall (12-9-1) should be among one of the top challengers to Johnson in Region 8-4A after a successful finish to the 2022 season.

After a slow 1-4-1 start to the season, the Vikings rebounded to win 11 of their last 16 games, including six of their last eight, to reach the Class 4A semifinals.

And with eight starters returning, including seniors David Loza and Amado Valladarez and juniors Jonathan Torres and Justin Torres, second-year coach Chris Henry is optimistic that they are in good position to build on last year's late surge.

"(The way) we finished last year, we kind of knew we could (play like that) all year," Henry said. "There were some things we were playing program-wise — culture, playing style, everything throughout the year — (before) we finally started clicking.

"We've got a lot returning this year. We should be deeper this year. We feel like we should be able to put together a competitive team to make (another) run."