By Brian Paglia
On one of the final Fridays of the regular season comes perhaps the most compelling slate of soccer games this season.
One matchup has a region championship at stake. Two more have the electricity of a county and region rivalry with playoff positioning hanging in the balance.
Here's a look at tonight's best games:
Forest Park at Dutchtown, 7:30 p.m.
Dutchtown boys soccer coach Justin Smith has turned the Bulldogs program from marginally competitive three years ago to the only remaining undefeated team in Class AAAA this season.
"From where I got it three years ago, we've come a long way," Smith said.
But the Bulldogs (10-0-1, 6-0 Region 4-AAAA) are focused on a region championship that eluded them last season.
They'll have a chance to accomplish that feat today at home, but they'll have to go through a Forest Park (10-5, 6-1) team that beat Dutchtown in the region championship last season.
"It's important to me and of course to our players," Smith said, "particularly the ones who were here last year. It's going to be nice to have (Forest Park) on our field."
Said Forest Park coach Ken Walkington: "I know they're looking forward to this game. We've been looking forward to this game all year."
Smith is looking forward to whether juniors Darion Copeland and Judah Goodridge, the county's leading scorers, and senior Zach Silva (signed with Holy Cross) can force the Panthers to adjust to their style of play.
"We try to make people play our style," Smith said.
"Our midfield has to create chances and our strikers have to score like they have all year."
Luella girls at Union Grove, 6 p.m.
Union Grove coach Cody Guined understands the magnitude of the Lady Wolverines' game against Luella.
That's why it bothers him so much he won't be there.
"With one that has this much on the line," Guined said, "it's really killing me to know I can't be there."
Guined will be in Valdosta today where one of his best friends is getting married.
The Lady Wolverines (12-2-1, 5-1 Region 2-AAAAA) will be at home with a chance to clinch a county championship and second place in the region against their biggest rival.
"We always know the Luella game is going to be a good game," Guined said. "It's always going to be an intense game. It's going to be a game where there's a lot of emotion."
But ever since the rival has existed, it's been a game with a predictable outcome. Union Grove has never lost to the Lady Lions (10-3, 5-1).
Luella coach Ben Salba said if the Lady Lions are to change that they must control midfield behind juniors Kayla Millholland and Katie Austad.
"If we do that, I think we've got a good chance," Salba said.
"If we can't, then it'll be a long night."
Luella boys at Union Grove, 8 p.m.
On the night Union Grove soccer will celebrate its 10th season, one of its most accomplished former players will be coaching on the other sideline.
Nick Ellis was a sophomore when Union Grove opened in 2000. The next year he became a team captain. Now, he's in his second year coaching at Luella (10-3, 5-1 Region 2-AAAAA), which has beaten the Wolverines (12-3, 5-1) three straight times.
Union Grove coach Mark Matthews, who coached Ellis, isn't surprised his former player is thriving as a coach.
"He's done a great job over there, but I knew he would," Matthews said. "He's done a lot with the talent he has. I think they've graduated a lot of players the last couple of years and he's continued to keep them up in the top of the region."
Both teams are tied for second in the region coming into tonight's contest, which was the same scenario going into last season's meeting, when Luella caught Union Grove off-guard with a late goal to win 1-0.
Matthews and the Wolverines are pulling out all the stops this time to celebrate the program's milestone. They've ordered lime green jerseys for players and fans for what they're calling a "Lime Out."
Matthews is hoping to create an electric atmosphere. But that won't be unfamiliar to Ellis.
"We don't have to hype this game up," Ellis said. "It's got enough hype as it is."