MACON — The GMC Prep boys soccer team left it all out on the field in Thursday night’s GHSA Class A-Public state championship game, and also left no doubt as to which team is tops in the state.
The Bulldogs sank the Titans of Lake Oconee Academy, winning the championship match 2-1 after having fallen into an early 0-1 hole for the third straight game.
The GMC boys definitely have a flair for the dramatic. The most recent evidence pointing to that fact being that they trailed for over 66 minutes of game time in the title match, but held the lead when it counted most. The tight-knit team was given the opportunity to regroup with 26:31 left to play when it was still down a goal. Lightning in the area forced a stoppage in play, sending both teams to their respective locker rooms. The game resumed 45 minutes later and a rejuvenated group of Bulldogs retook the field. A goal by senior Logan Steinmeyer with just over four minutes left in regulation forced overtime, and Dylan Smith, who has been Johnny on the spot for the ‘Dogs as of late, made good on a rebound opportunity five minutes into the extra period to give GMC the only lead it would need. From there they held the Titans off, securing the school’s first-ever soccer state championship. The landmark victory caps off a 19-2 2019 season that saw the Bulldogs earn both the program’s first area and state titles.
For GMC Prep soccer alum and current coach Bobby Jaworski, the win marked the culmination of 20 years hard work since the program’s inception. Jaworski joined the team as a player in just the program’s second year and played all four years in high school, and returned to coach eight years ago having been handed the reins by his father.
“I have no words,” Jaworski said after celebrating with his players and the GMC fans. “This is unreal.”
Thursday’s state championship marked the Bulldogs’ third straight game that could not be decided in GHSA soccer’s 80-minute regulation. Their quarterfinal and semifinal contests both had to be settled on penalty kicks. Thankfully for the supporters whose hearts may have been in questionable shape after having to witness those close ballgames, all GMC needed was the one 15-minute overtime period this time around.
“We had confidence after our last two games went into penalty kicks that we could make something happen no matter what scenario we ran into,” Jaworski said.
Both contenders were presented with opportunities early on in the matchup held inside Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium, the venue where the Bears play their home football games on Saturdays in the fall. The Titans would take the game’s first shot just 40 seconds in, but it was off-frame and flew wide left of the GMC goal manned by senior keeper Sean Herndon. The Bulldogs flexed their ball movement muscles about five minutes later when Taylor Sherwood launched the ball downfield to striker Ethan Tolentino. After a strong individual effort by the sophomore, the ball found the feet of Steinmeyer who was staring down an open net if he could just get the ball near the far post. His on-target attempt flirted with the goal line, but was swept away by a very timely LOA defender.
Shortly after, the Titans were awarded a free kick on their own end of the field late in the ninth minute, and the resulting blast was helped along before finding its way to their leading scorer John Clay Wofford. He headed the ball over a helpless Herndon in goal for the game’s first strike. It was a flash in the pan LOA could not replicate for the rest of the night thanks to Herndon and the defense playing in front of him.
The remainder of the first half would play itself out somewhat uneventfully with neither team making good on any offensive threat.
The state championship matchup’s next big turning point came in the form of the lightning delay that started around 8:40 p.m. with 26:31 left in regulation and LOA still holding the 1-0 advantage. Both teams were ordered to leave the field and even the fans were forced to leave the stadium as they were asked to take shelter in their vehicles while the game was halted. The sea of supporters in red and the ones in Titan blue flocked toward the gates to wait out the weather that luckily never made its way directly over Five Star Stadium.
Play resumed about 45 minutes after the stoppage once both teams had the opportunity to get in another round of warmups. LOA’s strategy from the restart was to send booming kicks into the GMC end every chance they got, forcing the Bulldogs to gather the ball and try and mount an attack that just would not come, killing lots of clock along the way.
“I think the fact that we weren’t actually driving into their half of the field was making me a little bit uneasy,” Jaworski said. “Their defensive strategy was to just get the ball and clear it. We had a hard time piecing anything together and finding the space behind the defense.”
A strategic adjustment with only about 10 minutes to play helped the GMC Prep boys along. Their 4-5-1 attack simply wasn’t working, and so a change was made.
“We knew that if we could at least get the game level and get into overtime we had the legs to drive a little bit further,” added Jaworksi. “We changed our formation. We went to a 3-5-2 to put more pressure up top on their defense. That’s when things really started to click for us.”
GMC’s second half scoring opportunities increased from nearly nonexistent to a flood of shots sent toward the LOA goal. The third in a less than three-minute span proved to be the moneymaker, and it all started with a little nonverbal communication between senior classmates Logan Steinmeyer and Taylor Sherwood.
“I saw Taylor look up and we made eye contact,” Steinmeyer said. “He sent it through and I just tried to put it in. They (LOA) were able to get a head on it and when it came back down I just made sure to put it in the back of the net.”
Steinmeyer, who boasts an impressive 17 goals now on the season, called the game-tying goal that came with just 4:09 left in regulation the biggest of his life. But the work was not finished.
The Titans caught a bad break with just 18 seconds to go. They were on the attack on GMC’s end with a Bulldog injured and down on the ground not too far from play. Things got a little too close for the head official, and he whistled play dead to allow the GMC training staff to tend to the player, halting LOA’s momentum. Play resumed and the Titans could not re-mount their attack after the stoppage, which took the game into overtime all tied up at 1-1.
The go-ahead goal came just over five minutes into overtime. A pass found sophomore Eden Kaninjing down into the Titan box and he squared the ball up nicely, but it met an LOA defender rather than the friendly nylon net. GMC senior Dylan Smith was there to collect the deflection and cashed in just like he has on several other big moments for the Bulldogs this season. He says he took advantage of the fact that the Titan defenders were playing referee rather than defense.
“A through-ball got sent in to Eden, and all the defenders were calling for offsides, which it wasn’t,” Smith said. “Usually when that happens the defense stops for a moment while they’re waiting for the call, so while they weren’t paying attention I just sent it in.”
Smith notched the game-winning PK in the quarterfinals against Trion, and tied up the semifinal match when his team was down against Atkinson County. So where does winning a soccer state championship rank in a young man’s life who is getting ready to graduate from high school in a week?
“It feels amazing,” said Smith. “This is the best feeling ever.”
Just like they had done in their previous close calls, the 2019 Class A-Public state champions ran across the field to thank their fans for the support once the game went final and shook the hands of the players they had just defeated, putting a perfect punctuation mark on a banner season.