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Posted: Friday, April 16th 2010 at 12:59pm

Gainesville, Johnson boys set for 'Cup final' at City Park

By Morgan Lee Editor
click to enlarge
Gainesville's Russ Puckett, left, and Johnson's Chris Henry will be key players on Friday when the two teams square off at City Park in Gainesville.
GAINESVILLE -- Just how big is Friday night’s showdown between third-ranked Gainesville and eighth-ranked Johnson boys soccer teams?

“Right now this game is as important to me as a World Cup final,” Red Elephants senior Irving Salgado said.

And Johnson’s players agree.

“It’s going to be like a championship game -- and that’s because it is,” Knights senior Inmer Venegas said.

While the season won’t end with the outcome of Friday’s battle at City Park in Gainesville, it will certainly be defined by the latest installment of what each set of players call the fiercest rivalry in Region 7-AAA.

Both teams enter the match knowing a win could seal a region title, as Gainesville sits on top of the 7-AAA standings at 12-0 and 9-0 in region play. Johnson is right behind in second place with an overall record of 11-2 and 8-1 in 7-AAA. The Red Elephants would claim their first region crown since 2005 with a victory, while the Knights would move into first and need a win against Chestatee the following Monday to secure their first crown since ’07. The winner would also stake a claim to a top seed for the state playoffs -- not to mention earn some bragging rights.

“Last season they kept us from winning the region,” Johnson midfielder Vicente Trujillo said. “We want to get some payback.”

The Red Elephants, who edged the Knights in a penalty shootout last year, have plenty of motivation of their own.

“I know what it’s like to lose to Johnson,” said Salgado, who missed last season’s victory. “Now I want to know what it’s like to win that game. The game’s going to be so full of emotion... I just can’t describe it.”

Anyone who’s witnessed some of the recent battles between the two Hall County foes will have an idea of what’s in store. For those who don’t, both teams warn that it will not be a game for the faint of heart.

“It’s going to be a fast game -- fast and physical,” Johnson goalkeeper Luis Carrero said.

“It’s definitely going to be physical,” Gainesville senior striker Russ Puckett said. “There’s going to be some hard tackles, but you can’t let that get to you in a game like this.”

Both sets of players know each other well, and several even play with each other in club soccer.

“I’ve played with a lot of those guys for a lot of years,” Red Elephants striker Gabriel Osorio said. “We all know each other pretty well.”

“We’re both very good teams and play a very similar style,” Venegas said.

In fact, the contest could simply come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes – or who makes the one killer error.

“I think it’s going to come down to who’s more mentally tough, who can concentrate more,” Gainesville sophomore defender Charlie Bryant said.

“Whoever makes the least mistakes will win this game,” Johnson senior midfielder Chris Henry said.

Henry is one of 12 seniors that feature for the Knights, a group that entered the season with two clear goals.

“Number one was to win the region,” said Johnson coach Brian Shirley. “Their second goal was to beat Gainesville. Our kids are fired up to go in there. But it’s not going to be easy. Gainesville never gives up and is a well-coached team.”

Red Elephants coach Rick Howard throws the plaudits right back at the Knights.

“I think it’s going to be a great game,” Howard said. “Johnson is so well-coached and talented. They really don’t have any weak points. I’m just happy for the opportunity to compete against them for a region title.”

Though Howard’s team features its share of talent and a few key upperclassmen, he says the success of this season is still a bit of a surprise.

“When you look at our region, it’s so competitive, I thought we’d be competitive in it, but this has been a dream season,” Howard said. “But our kids have adapted well this season, and this game is a result of their hard work.

“Gainesville went through a down patch, and our goal was to bring back the tradition.”

There’s no doubt that both teams will add to the tradition of this great rivalry on Friday.

“This rivalry goes a long way back,” Shirley said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere over there.”

“This game means everything to me,” Puckett said. “We can’t hold back.”

Come kickoff at City Park rest assured that the other 21 players on the field will be thinking the exact same thing.

WHAT: Region 7-AAA soccer match
WHEN: Girls game starts at 5:30 p.m., boys at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: City Park, Gainesville
RECORDS: Johnson (11-2, 8-1 Region 7-AAA); Gainesville (12-0, 9-0 Region 7-AAA)
WHAT’S AT STAKE: The Gainesville boys can clinch a region crown with a win, while the Johnson boys can move into first place in 7-AAA with a victory. There are also playoff implications in the opening match, as the Gainesville and Johnson girls are also battling for the postseason.
Associated Categories: Sports News, High School Sports

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