Only four GHSA Class A-Public boys soccer teams remain in contention for a state championship, and the Georgia Military College Prep School Bulldogs are one of them.
The Bulldogs secured their spot in the state semifinals by defeating another set of Bulldogs Wednesday when Trion High School made the long trek down to Milledgeville for quarterfinal action. Just like in the girls game played before it, the boys match could not be decided after regulation ended with the score set at 1-1. But the young men took things a step further than their female counterparts. The 15-minute overtime period netted no scores for either side, so on to penalty kicks (PKs) the contest went. GMC went 4-of-5 in the game’s deciding bout while Trion finished one goal behind, giving the host Bulldogs the victory.
Seniors Sean Herndon and Dylan Smith were the PK heroes Wednesday — Herndon from his part-time goalkeeper position and Smith as GMC’s fifth and final PK-er. Now, the Bulldogs have another game to play as they ready themselves for state semifinal action.
“Making it to the Final Four means everything to these guys, and they’ve earned it,” a fired-up GMC Prep boys soccer coach Bobby Jaworski said. “We’ve had some big wins and we’ve had some nailbiters. We just couldn’t put the chances in the back of the net. We knew if we could get into overtime we could still create chances, and we did. When it came down to the penalty kicks — what’s the name of the game? Score more than they do? We put our best five out there and Sean made a great save on that fifth kick and Dylan was there to finish it. It was something beautiful.”
Also like the girls game played earlier in the evening, Trion was the first to get on the board, scoring less than nine minutes into play. GMC’s best chance to match came just over 10 minutes later when awarded a direct kick on the visitors’ end. After conferring with his teammates, senior Taylor Sherwood sent the ball flying toward the goal. Sophomore and GMC Prep leading scorer Ethan Tolentino positioned himself nicely to receive the ball and did so with his head before putting it into the back of the net. The big matchup went to half with the score still tied at 1-1.
The second half came and went with neither team finding the net, bringing about the 15-minute overtime period. Both teams had their chances in the extra period, but both goalies and defenses were up to the task as the dueling ones on the home and away sides of the scoreboard remained.
Fans flowed to Robertson Field’s east end — the side closest to the Oconee River — to get a better look at the action as officials readied it for PK play. GMC’s Herndon had played the first half in goal but gave way to sophomore Krish Patel in the second half. The two have split time regularly this season, giving Herndon the opportunity to play in the field more. Once Wednesday’s matchup came down to PKs though, the senior Herndon knew where he wanted to be. He watched Trion’s first shot fly wide left of the goal, but by the time both teams had sent four men up they each scored three times, making the fifth and final frame the deciding factor. The visiting Bulldogs were up first and sent a lefty up to the PK mark. Herndon drew on prior experience before making what could have been the game-saving stop.
“PKs are long, so if you don’t make one save you have to get back up and try to make the next one,” Herndon said. “I’m glad I came through when I needed to. … There’s a rule I learned a couple of years back at a goalkeeper camp that lefties always go to the right side of the goal, so to the left of the keeper. I had that in my head, so I knew exactly where he was going. I just had to make sure I didn’t leave early and to get a hand on it, and I did.”
The job was only half over though as the fate of the game rested solely on the foot of Dylan Smith and the hands of Trion’s goalie, who had played a solid game up to that point.
“I knew that the entire season had been building up to that moment,” Smith said on what was on his mind in the time leading up to the kick. “I knew if I didn’t calm my nerves and put the ball in the net then we were going to go home early. There’s no way after working this hard that that was going to happen.”
Smith made good on his opportunity, and the celebration was on as the Bulldogs officially earned their semifinal berth.
“These guys are a bunch of fighters and that they can battle through adversity,” Jaworski said on what the big win says about his team. “It’s really thanks to the leadership. I didn’t give any kind of big meaningful speech after regulation going into overtime. The guys took care of it themselves, and that was their moment. They led the charge and got everybody on board. That leadership really carried us through.”
The Bulldogs will now take on Atkinson County in the state semifinals next week in Milledgeville. Atkinson defeated Drew Charter 6-2 to advance.
Date and time for the Final Four matchup are to be determined.