By Zack Huffman
When the boys soccer team from Mt. Zion stepped onto the field at Jonesboro High School last Friday, they not only faced a major region rival on its own turf, they faced what was most likely the final obstacle on its path to the state playoffs.
Earlier in the week, Mt. Zion had been ranked sixth in the region, leaving the Bulldogs too far away from the top four ranking that would have earned them a seed in the state tournament.
That was before North Clayton had to forfeit the bulk of their region games due to the accidental use of an ineligible player.
With the Eagles knocked out of the third spot in 4-AAAA, the door was open for the Bulldogs. All they had to do was get by Jonesboro.
Jonesboro (8-7) had the better record. They also had homefield advantage, and the fact that it was senior night for the Cardinals likely did much to further energize the team.
"We all got together and talked," said team captain Hugo Antunez. "We said we had to beat Jonesboro. We usually lose to them."
Mt. Zion prevailed, scoring a crucial win, 2-1.
"I'm happy we beat them this year. Everybody gave it their all," said Antunez.
"The guys knew what they had to do," said Mt. Zion head coach Chris Brown.
For Mt. Zion, it was an unexpected repeat from the 2007 season when the Bulldogs upset Jonesboro and made it into the playoffs with the help of a forfeit from Forest Park.
"It's like a really weird mirror image of two years ago," said Brown.
Now, with a 5-5, 4-3 record, the Bulldogs find themselves in a position to get back into the playoffs, provided they are able to reschedule their postponed game against Stockbridge (0-8) and defeat the Tigers before the official end of the GHSA season April 14.
The season itself has been a rocky affair for the Bulldogs, who bounced back from a season-opening loss to Morrow to go on a three-game winning streak that included wins against region rivals Ola and Griffin.
Things got difficult for Mt. Zion from there as they proceeded to suffer through a five-loss skid, ending in the pivotal win against Jonesboro.
"There have been good things and bad things," said Brown. "It's been a bit of a roller coaster."
According to Brown, it was during the midst of their losing streak that the Bulldogs were able to re-group and turn things around.
"It wasn't really due to us not being ready or not having the personnel," said Brown about his squad's struggles. "It was about executing and playing as a team."
After so many losses in a row, morale was low for the Bulldogs.
"It was crazy. Everybody was down," said Antunez.
Brown knew something had to be done.
"Morale was hard to get back because I have a lot of young guys and their morale is affected by the behavior of the upperclassmen," said Brown, who explained that he sat down with his team towards the end of the losing streak and discussed that win or lose, he wanted everybody to play as a team and enjoy themselves.
Morale took care of itself from there.
"Everybody is having a good time," said captain Eli Acosta.
The biggest factor in Mt. Zion's success has been it's defense, according to Brown.
"Our goalkeeper and defense has really stepped up. That's what won us the Jonesboro game," he said. "We don't score a lot of goals, but we play smart, so we don't have to."
"Our goalie is awesome," echoed Acosta.
Ultimately, Brown is most satisfied with the reputation his soccer team has earned among their peers at Mt. Zion, especially thanks to improved performance in the classroom.
According to Brown, after struggling through last season with just 12 players thanks to academic issues affecting player eligibility, this season has brought academic success to the roster.
"I was happy that I had 24 eligible people trying out. That made me pretty proud," said Brown. "Soccer will always be here, but getting that high school diploma is pretty doggone important."
No matter if they get the chance to face Stockbridge or their opponent in the first round of the state playoffs, the soccer team of Mt. Zion will play again this season.
"I expect them to do what they know how to do, play smart, play tough and play every single second they're out there," said Brown.
"We just want to give it our all and see how far we get," said Acosta.