It’s been nine years since the GISA made soccer solely a spring sport.
The beautiful game had previously been a fall and spring offering until the switch was made. Since that time, John Milledge Academy had made it to the state playoffs multiple times, but never won.
Until Tuesday night.
The Trojans went on the road to open the postseason versus the Trinity Christian Crusaders, and left Dublin with a 3-1 victory to punch their ticket to the second round. Ironically the team’s first playoff win under eighth-year head coach Cody Mahler came in his last season at the helm as he’s taken a job at Perry High School next year. He said Tuesday’s victory felt like a culmination of all the work his teams have put in since he came to lead the program.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I just saw relief and excitement on all the guys’ faces. Two years ago we got our first win against Augusta Prep, and a lot of my guys were freshmen when that happened. Now they’re part of the first playoff victory. They had to go through a lot to get there, but it was fun watching them.”
Tuesday was the second meeting this season between JMA and Trinity. The Crusaders took that first match 3-0 during the season-opening tournament they host each year. Mahler said his team’s fresher legs were a big difference in the rematch, but the playoff host certainly didn’t make things easy.
“Trinity’s a very good team,” the Trojan head coach said. “They’re extremely well-coached and super aggressive. We know we’ve got our hands full anytime we play them, but our guys were really focused. We controlled the field and were really sound other than the first minute of the game.”
The Crusaders scored just 30 seconds into the contest, giving them a big early advantage that would be squandered. John Milledge answered before the first half was up as junior Carson Tom buried a penalty kick after Trinity was whistled for a foul in the box. The score would remain 1-1 heading into halftime.
Several gutsy performances pushed the Trojans over the top, none more so than junior captain Hunter Hudson. He took a hard foul 15 minutes into the first half that forced him to leave the field and seek medical attention. Things were scary at first as Mahler said his player couldn’t move his leg, but time healed that wound in a big way.
“He went from thinking he had a broken leg to scoring two goals in the second half,” Mahler said of Hudson.
The score was still tied 1-1 when a lightning delay stopped play 14 minutes into the second half. The Trojans went to work less than 10 minutes after play resumed as Tommy Collier found Shay NeSmith who sent a pass over to the rejuvenated Hudson. The junior’s shot went into the corner of the net to put JMA up 2-1. A little insurance got added to the Trojan tally with about 10 minutes to play when the visiting team launched a long ball into the Trinity end. It looked like it was heading out of play, but the speedy Collier — a state champ in the 300-meter hurdles — slid to keep the ball inbounds, got back on his feet, and played it in to the crashing Hudson who garnered his second goal.
“Tommy has made a lot of plays and scored a lot of goals, but that was the most impressive play just from pure hustle that I’ve seen from him in three years,” Mahler said.
Now the ninth-seeded Trojans get the distinct pleasure of playing the top-ranked GISA boys soccer team in the second round. Holy Spirit Prep out of Atlanta (18-1) had a bye in the first round, and now waits to host JMA. The two teams met in the Trojans’ second game this season, one they lost 6-1 after going into the half down just 2-1.
“We’re a lot more conditioned now, but it’s going to take a full team effort,” Mahler said. “We’re going to have to play 80 minutes and maybe more. We can definitely take advantage of some space to score, but it’s going to be whether we can put two halves together against a team like that.”
The second-round matchup is slated for 5:30 p.m. Friday in Atlanta.