By Jonathan Deal
Athens boys team was inches away.
Trailing 1-0, Jose Soto’s long-range shot with less than a minute to play bounced off the underside of the crossbar and down on the goal line, inches from going in.
Briarwood fought off one Athens attack after another in the second half to hold on for a 1-0 victory in the 5A semifinals Friday afternoon at John Hunt Park.
“It was a nail-biter. We knew it wasn’t over until the final whistle,” said senior captain Wynn Baker. “They just made some big saves at the end. That was the difference.”
Athens sent wave after wave to attack the Briarwood goal in the closing minutes of the game. Its best chances came with less than two minutes to play.
Pressing for a goal, Wynn Baker fired a shot from 30 yards, forcing Briarwood’s goalie to go full stretch to his left to save the dipping ball. On the ensuing corner, the ball bounced out to Soto who ripped another shot toward Briarwood’s goal.
Soto’s ball hit the crossbar and sent Briarwood’s defense into chaos trying to clear the ball in the dying seconds of the game. Moments later the referee blew the final whistle, ending Athens unbeaten season.
“We repeatedly attacked their goal in the second half,” said Athens head coach Ron Oakley. “They outplayed us a little in the first half and we challenged our guys to step up and they did just that.”
Athens outshot Briarwood 11 to 5 in the second half and 15 to 8 for the game.
Briarwood took the lead in the 23rd minute when Lee Conner found space on the right flank. Conner’s shot from the right side of the 18-yard box slid past Dean Bunnell and into the side netting for the game’s only goal.
It was the first time Athens’ trailed all season.
“The response we had is what I expected from them,” said Oakley. “This team has character and they’ve showed it for the past four years. Somebody always steps up. I’m proud of the way they played. I couldn’t have been more proud if we had won.”
Athens ends its season with a 21-1-1 record.