Johnson boys ready to meet the challenge of title defense in 2023

Jan. 26—Johnson has been among the gold standard in high school boys soccer in Hall County for several years.

After claiming its second Class 5A state Championship in the past four seasons a year ago, which also came with a final No. 4 national ranking, the Knights enter the 2023 campaign among the gold standard far beyond the county.

That status also carries with it some high expectations, especially with several key players from last year’s title team returning.

However, those high standards don’t represent anything that head Coach Frank Zamora and his Knights (21-1-1 in 2022) plan to run away from.

“The boys understand the pressure,” Zamora said. “They understand the environment. As teenagers, you can imagine (how) it’s a point of pride to be able to play here at Johnson and they’re excited about the challenge.”

Excitement is one thing, but Zamora knows it will take more than that for Johnson to clear the high bar he has set for himself.

For one thing, while the Knights move down one classification this spring, the revamped Region 8-4A they will be a part of is one of the most challenging they’ve ever played in.

Between Hall County foes Cherokee Bluff, a playoff team in 3A who fought to a 0-0 tie with Johnson last year, and East Hall, a 4A semifinalist a year ago, plus others like Defending 8-4A champ and state quarterfinalist North Oconee and 3A quarterfinalist East Forsyth, there will be no shortage of challenges in the new region alignment.

And every opponent the Knights play this season will relish the opportunity to knock them off their perch.

“It’s going to (take) focus and concentration every single game,” Zamora said. “We’re going to play (some) teams that we haven’t played for region. We can’t afford to have any slip-ups. We can’t look past anybody.

“We’re Everybody’s target, and we’re going to get Everybody’s best. If we want to build on what we have and continue to make a deep run into the state (playoffs), we have to do the same thing. We have to give everybody our best and take every game one step at a time and focus on the opponent we have at hand

The good news is that Johnson will also have no shortage of weapons with which to do battle, starting with last season’s Player of the Year, Jorge Sandoval.

The senior midfielder/forward is one of seven preseason Class 4A All-State selections by, with fellow Seniors Ramon Aguilar (a striker), defender Landon Avalos and midfielder Christian Robles joining him on the first-team, while junior midfielder Andres Galicia and sophomores Daniel Trujillo (D) and Jalil Chavez (MF/F) earning Honorable mention.

“That’s huge,” Zamora said. “Just having that much experience and depth in our roster definitely helps with the overall feeling and overall excitement, and being able to control some of that pressure.

“And for the Younger guys being able to be around players like Jorge, Ramon, Christian and Landon — Seniors who have been starters here for a while — it definitely comforts them to be surrounded by such high-level players, but also great leaders. “

Zamora also has confidence in the ability of several newcomers to provide plenty of depth to the team’s experienced leadership, something they demonstrated Wednesday in a resounding 5-0 win over Mountain View in their preseason scrimmage.

“I think we’re pretty balanced, having some great defensive players and a lot of experience in our back line,” Zamora said. “You combine that with individual players like Jorge and Ramon and some of the Younger guys that are an attacking Threat every chance they get, and I think we’re going to be a pretty balanced team. We’re excited to see how it kind of fits in.”

Along with Johnson, East Hall and Cherokee Bluff, there are several other Hall County teams that could make some noise this spring, most notably West Hall.

The Spartans (17-4-1) and will remain in Class 3A under first-year Coach Jody Pinion this season after winning Region 7-3A and advancing all the way to the state semifinals in 2022.

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