CALHOUN — The Calhoun boys soccer team has only been to the Final Four one other time in program history — that trip coming when the seniors on the current team were freshmen three short years ago.
So it seemed only fitting that one of those seniors had the biggest hand (or foot) in sending the Jackets back there again.
During Saturday’s match against Atkinson County in the third round of the Class AA state playoffs, Calhoun senior Erwin Flores found the back of the net for the one and only goal needed in the Jackets’ 1-0 win in front of their home fans.
The victory moves Calhoun (19-2) into the semifinals where they will host Greater Atlanta Christian on Wednesday.
Greater Atlanta Christian advanced to the semifinals by beating Vidalia, 5-1, Saturday.
Flores’ goal came past the midway point of the second half off an assist from Darwin Lom after Calhoun couldn’t quite convert on several chances up to that point.
Flores said he knew if the team kept fighting on Saturday, they would come out on top.
“It felt great (when we scored the goal,” said Flores. “This means so much to us. It means that hard work pays off. Coach (Matt) Rice has been telling us to keep working hard, and we will keep winning.”
Rice said his team didn’t falter despite a tough challenge from Atkinson County and his team struggling to get that first goal.
“We played a very, very good team today, and they pushed us to our limits,” said Rice. “But our guys stayed together and stayed solid. And everyone saw they way our guys celebrated (when we scored the goal). It wasn’t to rub anything in. It was just the pure release of emotion. They were that happy.
“This game could’ve gone either way, and we’re happy to come out on the winning side.”
The Jackets had a header in the box off a corner kick go wide and two free kicks sail over the top of the crossbar in the first half, and then had a very good chance at the start of the second half with a ball in the box, but they just couldn’t get the ball through all the traffic. But those missed chance just made Flores’ game-winning goal even more dramatic.
Atkinson County (14-3-1) had several good chances of their own inside the penalty box, but the Jackets defense came through when they needed it most and recorded their 16th shutout of the season.
“It was a full commitment from the top all the way to the back, and on this level, that’s what it takes,” said Rice. “Something we’ve talked about all year with our defenders is covering for each other, getting back and being a unit, and that’s why we won the game today. They didn’t want to let the guy standing beside them that they’ve played with all year and for some of them, four years, down.
“They put it all on the line today, and it made a big difference.”
The Jackets have now made it one step further than they did last season when they lost to Blessed Trinity, 3-1, in the Elite Eight to end their season. Rice, who is in his second year as head coach at Calhoun, said that loss fueled his team to work even harder to get back again and go even further this season.
“Calhoun’s only been to the Final Four one other time in school history for soccer so to make it there is pretty exceptional,” said Rice. “The guys who went to the Final Four as freshmen made it our goal to make it back there and make it to the championship game.
“Last season after we lost in the Elite Eight, we started working for this year, going to summer camp, the guys playing in various leagues in the fall and the winter. It’s all been building toward this point.”
The Jackets will have a big addition coming back for their semifinal game on Wednesday as they will welcome back starting center midfielder and captain Brayan Forcado who hasn’t played the last two games due to a red card in the opening round of the state tournament against Wesleyan.
Flores said he thinks this team can win it all.
“I feel really confident,” said Flores. “We’ve got a really good team and good chemistry. We’re just going to keep playing hard and give it everything we’ve got.”