COVINGTON, Ga. — Creighton Goerner could hardly concentrate in class during the school day Thursday. In fact, with each drop of rain that pelted his classroom window, Goerner got increasingly antsy.
He wanted to play Woodward Academy Thursday night. At home in Sharp Stadium. But with a steady rain falling throughout virtually all of metro Atlanta for the entire morning — including Covington — and part of the afternoon, each hour that passed by made the Eagles junior feel less confident about being able to play Eastside’s chief Region 4-AAAA soccer rival.
The rainy weather moved out mid afternoon and the grass at Sharp Stadium drained well enough and was in good enough condition for Eastside to go out and notch a 2-1 victory over Woodward Academy.
“I was definitely getting nervous at school,” Goerner said. “I was looking out the window during class periods hoping it would stop.”
And the subsequent celebration. pic.twitter.com/C36EB0gO8l— 𝘾𝙊𝙑𝙉𝙀𝙒𝙎 𝙎𝙋𝙊𝙍𝙏𝙎 (@CovNewsSports) March 1, 2019
There’s a reason for that. Yes, it was Woodward Academy. If you pay any attention at all to Region 4-AAAA sports, it seems nowadays that the region race almost always comes down to Eastside and Woodward Academy. But that alone wasn’t it.
Pole position in the race for a Region 4-AAAA championship was on the line in this one, especially since both teams only play one time in the regular season. And beyond that, Goerner and his Eastside teammates were expecting a large, raucous crowd.
“We were promoting the game like crazy,” he said. “You saw where there were $1 tickets. We really wanted to get everybody out for this one. It was fun. All our friends came out. Half the baseball team came out. That’s why we kept running over to all the fans while celebrating our goals.”
Hence the reason why the Eastside boys soccer Twitter feed relayed a message from coach Champ Young late Thursday morning.
“Don’t even ask. Fields look great, game’s still on,” it said.
And what a game it was — and fitting for Goerner is the way it ended.
Jordan Beam was on the receiving end of a tackle in the box foul with 44.9 seconds left in regulation, triggering an Eastside penalty kick with the game knotted at 1-1. Guess who piped up in the huddle, expressing a strong desire to attempt that kick. Creighton Goerner.
“First, I was all confused. I didn’t know what was going on,” Goerner said. “The call was kind of weird. Then I found out it was PKs. I told my teammates that I was taking that. I knew I was going to score from the moment I got the ball. And I just, when I converted, well…”
His voice trailed off, he flashed a wry smile and motioned to his right where fans and teammates were still celebrating his game-winner. Goerner wasn’t being pushy in that clutch moment. He wasn’t trying to brush off a coach’s instructions. In fact, he was doing exactly what Young has encouraged his team to do in such moments this season.
“I’m a big fan of, in the moment like that, I let them sort that out,” Young said. “This is something we’ve preached since the beginning of this year. Make it more of a team-led thing instead of me trying to infuse myself. There are three or four of those guys who really seize the ball and seize the moment.”
And Young was nowhere near surprised that Goerner was the guy in the biggest moment in the biggest game of the season to date.
“He was picked by his teammates as a captain, and that’s one of the reasons why,” Young said. “You may not have seen it, but he got knocked hard here with about 25 (minutes) left. He never looked at me, and I gave him the thumbs up and we were good to go. I wasn’t going to second guess it at all. So he’s as good as advertised.”
On Thursday night against Eastside’s biggest Region 4-AAAA nemesis, he was stellar.
After the War Eagles opened things up with a goal at the 9:29 mark of the first half to take a 1-0 lead, it was Goerner scoring the equalizer on a header just 1:10 later. That’s how things would stay on the scoreboard at halftime, and really through almost the entire second half.
Eastside looked much sharper offensively in the second half, though, keeping things on the Woodward keeper’s side with much more regularity and getting a handful more shots on goal than in the first 40 minutes.
Senior Jackson Jolley had a couple of shots that almost scored, including one goal prevented by Woodward keeper Marshall Golick literally making the save with his face, and another that just went outside of the net to the Woodward keeper’s left.
“We talked about it at halftime, that they were playing a deep, deep line, so we had to hold the ball even better,” Young said. “And the kids responded to exactly what we talked about at halftime, and we started possessing them, and you saw the chances were coming. The game really opened up when that happened.”
Before that, Eastside had some definite bend-but-don’t-break moments defensively.
“I don’t know if you could bend anymore than we did,” Young said. “I think Tristan (Aldridge) saved one off his head. (Keeper) Jack (Hamby) makes a save over here and then one over there. He’s very quiet, but you saw him kind of awaken tonight. He’s making plays that we know he could, but now everybody sees what we see.”
What they also saw was a confident Goerner from the beginning of the match to the decisive final score. Early in the first half, the center midfielder almost executed an improbable bicycle-ish kick past Woodward’s keeper, although he insists he didn’t plan it that way.
“It was just a reaction, really,” Goerner said. “I felt like I was too far out there to make a real kick, so I just tried to get something on it.”
Goerner acknowledged he’s felt a surge of swagger on the pitch after getting his first college scholarship offer last week to Berry College.
“I was always kind of nervous that I’d not get an offer from anywhere,” he said. “So to get one early in my junior year, it really made me confident coming into the season and games like this.”
The fact that he’s noticeably bigger and stronger hasn’t hurt either. Goerner’s about three inches taller than last season, and he relishes in the fact that he’s seeing results from his time in the weight room.
“I’ve never taken weight training before, but I’ve taken it this year,” he said. “My bench press has gone up like 50 pounds. I’ve gotten taller and stronger. I just think my physical appearance has caught up with the high school game.”
His solid play and leadership is also helping Eastside catch up with the elite soccer programs in the state. The Eagles’ win over No. 4 Woodward comes on the heels of a 1-1 tie at a solid Whitewater squad and an 8-0 pasting of Walnut Grove. Earlier this season, the Eagles led Class AAAAA defending state champion and top-ranked Johnson 1-0 and 2-1 before succumbing to a 4-2 loss — their only defeat of the season.
Eastside will have a chance to end next week at 3-0 in region play as it will travel to Luella (2-0-2) on Tuesday and then Salem (0-4) on Friday. But Goerner said he and his teammates know that beating Woodward Academy alone isn’t good enough for where Eastside’s trying to go this season.
“Tonight was a big win,” he said. “But we beat them last year through PKs but obviously we didn’t win the region. We had to go through Druid Hills, and we know we’ll need to take care of business with them this year. They’re a really strong team and they’ve had some good results so far. But this is a really big win. It propels us to first right now.”
Goerner said he’s looking forward to getting Friday and the weekend off. He thinks it’ll be perfect timing to help his team stay grounded and focused on their ultimate goals.
“You know, during tryouts we were picking kids which we thought would make us the best team and give us the chance to make that long (state playoff) run,” he said. “Because the past two seasons, my freshman and sophomore year, we’ll perform okay in the first playoff game, and then come into the second playoff game and get blown out. So we’re just trying to think who can get us past that next point. That’s how we picked players in tryouts. That’s how we practice and train every day.”
Young said he believes Thursday’s win helped his team understand even more how to handle pressure moments on the pitch.
“The big thing we preach, and we talked about it before game, is don’t let the moment be bigger than the game,” Young said. “Coming into this, we felt good about it, I felt good about it. We had a plan and we knew what we were trying to do. We took care of what we needed to in the end.”