MACON, Ga. — The GMC Prep boys soccer team is going to have to shed its former title as the defending state champs.
The Bulldogs from now on would rather go by their new moniker — the two-time defending GHSA A-Public state champions. GMC held all the cards Friday night as they avenged two regular season losses to region foe ACE (Academy for Classical Education) Charter, beating the Gryphons 2-0 for the 2021 state championship in overtime. It’s the second state championship in GMC Prep boys soccer history and also the second in a row after the team won it all in 2019. (The 2020 season was not completed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) The victory also gave the ‘Dogs a 3-2 edge in the all-time series against ACE.
Entering the matchup, the Bulldogs felt they had a distinct advantage in two key areas — conditioning and big-game experience.
“We knew we could take it to them during overtime. They really haven’t faced any pressure these whole playoffs, and we’ve been to overtime before,” senior Ethan Tolentino said, referencing his team’s 2019 playoff run. “Coach Bobby (Jaworski) told us that if it went to overtime that it was an automatic win.”
The scoreboard inside Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium read 0-0 through 80 minutes of regulation and for five minutes of the first 10-minute overtime period. The levee broke at the 4:17 mark in the first OT when GMC Prep senior Colin McCabe slipped a ball down the line to leading scorer Tolentino, who sped past ACE’s gassed defenders to retrieve it. With ice in his veins, Tolentino had his opportunity and made the most of it as he left-footed the ball out of the Gryphon keeper’s reach and into the net to put the ‘Dogs up 1-0. That scenario would basically duplicate itself less than three minutes later when Tolentino notched his second goal of the night from McCabe, giving the striker 25 total in his senior season.
“Me and Ethan have played together for so long — I know him and he knows me,” McCabe said. “He’s a quick dude, so I knew he was going to be able to beat the defender. He’s one of the best teammates I could ever ask for.”
McCabe, Tolentino and their fellow four-year varsity teammates accumulated a 56-11 record and two state championships throughout their careers as Bulldogs, tying them with the Class of 2020 as the winningest group in program history.
“Their impact on this team is absolutely massive,” GMC Prep coach Bobby Jaworski said, speaking specifically about McCabe and Tolentino. “They’re great kids and real leaders. It goes without saying, but we’re going to miss the hell out of them next year.”
But those two players were hardly the only ones who had key roles in the championship victory. Some serious adjustments had to be made after the ‘Dogs lost both regular season bouts to ACE 4-1 and 4-3. In that 4-3 loss at ACE, GMC was actually down 4-0 at one point before battling back to control the game from there. The saying around sports is that it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. It’s even more difficult when the team that won the first two meetings doesn’t alter its game plan.
“Our strategy was to play more defensive and cover their options, especially their wide players,” Jaworski said before admitting he watched those first two ACE game films about 30 times. “We talked about it in our scouting report and watched the film. We literally drew their formation exactly how they came out and played both halves.”
Freshman Owen McCabe, younger brother to Colin, had the tough assignment of marking one of the best players in all of Class A this year, ACE’s Tanner Moreau. As you can tell by that zero in the final score, McCabe played lights out in the biggest game of the season, as did the defenders behind him.
“It allowed our center backs Carson (Smith) and Avery (Kirkland), who at times struggled this season, to play just absolutely brilliant soccer,” added Jaworski. “They played strong and headed the ball back out of pressure.”
Despite the brick wall put up by the GMC defense much of the night, the Gryphons were not without opportunities. ACE was outshot 8-3 in the first half, but came roaring back in the second with eight shots of its own. There were a few very tense moments, especially from the 17-minute mark until about nine minutes left in regulation. The Bulldog backline bent, but did not break. Three Gryphon corner kicks in quick succession went nowhere as senior keeper Krish Patel and crew held together. In his final game in goal, Patel stopped 10 out of 10 shots that came his way, ending his career with a championship clean sheet.
The Bulldogs had all the momentum after Tolentino’s two goals and the first overtime ended, but the match was not over yet. The GHSA stipulates that two 10-minute overtimes must be played before the game goes final, and so on to another extra period the game went. The Gryphons’ heavy legs only became more noticeable as they barely mustered any credible threats through those final minutes. The GMC defenders were able to boot the ball around while time wound down, eventually hitting all zeroes so the ‘Dogs could go celebrate back-to-back state titles with their big following that made the trip to Macon from Milledgeville.
“We were confident,” said McCabe. “We had a good week training, and we just got ready to do what we knew we were capable of. We’ve been here before and know what it’s like to go to overtime, so we just took care of business… I can go home and sleep knowing that we have two state championships. No one can say anything to us. I’m done, my story is over.”