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Two years removed from the program’s first state championship, the GMC Prep boys soccer team is making another run at the top prize.

The Bulldogs (10-6) bombarded the back of the net at Claxton (8-7) Wednesday, especially in the second half, scoring four goals in the game’s final 20 minutes to win 6-1 and advance to the Final Four. 

Senior striker Ethan Tolentino continued his postseason dominance in the victory. The captain tied a couple of his own school records as he got his third consecutive hat trick and pushed his season goal total to 22. That’s the same amount he finished with two years ago when the GMC boys won the state championship.

Joining Tolentino on the scoresheet were sophomores Owen Simpson and Davis Duke along with senior Colin McCabe who struck the final blow with just over a minute left. Brian Johnson, Jack Harris and Owen McCabe all had two assists apiece in Wednesday’s winning effort. 

In some ways, the Claxton match resembled the Bulldogs’ first two playoff contests, but with one exception. It took a while longer for the visitors to light up the scoreboard as they went into the half up just 1-0. 

“We owned possession and were dominant on the field,” GMC coach Bobby Jaworski said in a postgame phone interview. “We just couldn’t really find the right chances. Their keeper played out of his mind.”

The ‘Dogs and Tolentino got their second goal early in the second half before the host Tigers mustered their only answer. A free kick awarded following a foul around midfield gave them the opportunity. The ball was sent into the box where it squirted around for a bit before a Claxton player shot low and right to put his team on the board. That caused the defending Class A-Public state champs to find another gear.

“We had the game, we just couldn’t let ourselves get into those weird situations,” Jaworski said. “We played a little more aggressive up top when we needed to. We were more balanced in the middle and we changed our formation up a little bit.”

Simpson’s goal kickstarted the GMC scoring barrage with 20 minutes to go in regulation. Duke, Tolentino and Colin McCabe added to the tally to leave no doubt as to which team deserved the Final Four berth. 

The 2021 GHSA Class A-Public boys soccer tournament hasn’t exactly been a minefield of quality opponents thus far. The four semifinalists — GMC Prep, ACE Charter, Towns County and Lake Oconee Academy — have cumulatively outscored their challengers 68-4 this postseason. Competition should be kicked up more than a few notches as the top two teams from Regions 7 and 8 duke it out for the title.

Jaworski’s Bulldogs face a relative unknown in the semifinal round in Towns County (11-2) while ACE and Lake Oconee Academy will square off on the other side. The Towns County Indians of Hiawassee were the Region 8 champions this season, and share no common opponents with GMC Prep. The closest thing would be the LOA Titans of Greensboro, with whom Towns County split this season, but GMC has not faced LOA in well over a year. The Indians advanced Wednesday by beating Atkinson County 3-0 at home.

As the lower-seeded team, the Bulldogs will see about cementing their road warrior status as they have to travel to Towns for the semifinal matchup that’s set for Tuesday. 

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