Physical, competitive, consequential, stress-inducing, and nerve-wracking — all words that can easily be used to describe Wednesday’s GHSA Class A-Public boys soccer state semifinal bout between host GMC Prep and the Atkinson County Rebels.
The matchup more than lived up to its billing as a clash of two of Class A’s top teams. In the end there could be only one winner, but it took some extreme measures to bring that end about. For the second consecutive week and playoff round, the Bulldogs won on penalty kicks (PKs) thanks to a stone cold save by their own keeper and a clutch ability to put the ball past the Rebel goalie in the decisive one-on-one scenario. The 1-1 tie was settled when GMC won the PK session, giving the home team a 2-1 victory.
With the win, the GMC Prep boys soccer team has reached yet another new height as it is now on to the program’s first state championship game, which will be played next week against Lake Oconee Academy.
Coach Bobby Jaworski was every bit as jubilant as his players after the team’s landmark win.
“Pure joy,” Jaworski said of his feelings after the win. “Seeing all the excitement on the guys’ faces — this is everything our seniors have worked for these last four years. All the guys have been pushing it to the limit so we can get just one more game. I told them before we even took the field for warmups to do what they could and leave it all out here — sell out for one more home game so we can go one more week.”
Things weren’t looking good for the Bulldogs in the early going of Wednesday’s match. The Rebels were quicker to the ball and did not allow the GMC attack any room to operate. The visitors from southeast Georgia had their own attack that paid off only 2:30 into the game, forcing the ‘Dogs to play from behind just like in last week’s game against Trion.
“We just came out flat-footed,” Jaworski said. “On their attack they were just launching the ball straight up in the air and our center backs had to judge it on the bounce. For some reason we just weren’t ready for it, and it created that opportunity. The ball was coming down and the guy played it and it just went over Sean’s (Herndon, GMC keeper) head. That’s a tough ball to defend out of goal.”
Atkinson took the momentum and ran with it, catching the GMC defense out of position on a couple more occasions in the first half, but some good hustle from the ‘Dog defenders and sure play of the keeper Herndon kept the Rebels from increasing their lead. The game’s first 40 minutes played out with both teams having had few quality opportunities, but that narrative would change in the second half.
The Bulldogs came out of the break on their toes and ready to produce some scoring chances. Shots were taken, but ball met air or post/crossbar rather than net until about 12 minutes in. Momentum was swinging, and the home fans and players could feel it. Some nifty ball movement by GMC’s Ethan Tolentino and Logan Steinmeyer eventually found the feet of senior Dylan Smith who did what he had done 13 times prior this season and sent the ball past the Atkinson goalie, knotting things up at 1-1.
The two teams traded booming kicks into one another’s ends through the next stretch of play to relieve pressure on their respective defenses, and regulation played itself out with no more goals scored.
The sun set on GMC’s Robertson Field as overtime began, and neither team could ignite their fans with a game-winning goal in the extra period. It was déja vu for the Bulldogs as they found themselves once again in the throes of a game-deciding PK situation. Each team’s first five kickers all found the net in their one-on-one attempts versus the goalie. The two state semifinalists picked their next five as the game took a deeper dive into the GHSA rulebook.
“If the same number of penalty kicks are successful for each team, each coach will select five (5) different eligible players who will kick in a ‘sudden victory’ situation,” the rulebook states. “Each team will have an opportunity to kick in each round of the sudden victory procedure.”
Atkinson was up first to start the next five in what became a goalie-on-goalie scenario. The Rebels sent their keeper up to face Herndon who had come close in net to stopping a couple of the opposition’s first five shots.
“You just have to keep going,” Herndon said. “I was actually pretty mad because I had gotten a hand on two of those first five, I just couldn’t get them out. I knew since I had gotten a hand on a few that they were only going to get lucky so many times. I knew I would eventually get enough strength on the ball to get it out.”
Herndon did just that in facing his goalie colleague as he sent the attempt away, placing the ball in the court of GMC Prep sophomore Colin McCabe with the game on the line. McCabe’s PK against Trion last week was stopped, but that would not be the case Wednesday.
“Last week my penalty kick was blocked, so I got out here early every day after that to work on PKs because I wasn’t going to let the team down again,” McCabe said. “I knew that if I kept working I could do it, but I give all the credit to Sean and the rest of our team for working so hard.”
“All I told them was to pick a side and go for it,” Jaworski said on what he told his players as they prepared to go to PKs again. “The keeper was launching up into the air so we were trying to keep the ball low and put it in the corner. Unfortunately there were a couple that were close that the keeper almost got, but we made more than they did and Sean made the save at the end … This was a really good ballclub. Hats off to them because they played great. They pressured us and didn’t allow us to own any kind of possession. It was a true nail-biter.”
The stage has already been fully set for next week’s GHSA Class A-Public boys soccer state championship. Lake Oconee Academy will oppose GMC Prep after defeating ACE Charter 4-2 in the other semifinal. The Bulldogs and the LOA Titans met once during the 2019 regular season, a game that GMC won 2-1 back on March 5. The championship will be played Thursday, May 16 at Mercer University in Macon at 7:30 p.m.