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Apalachee's Corbin Cutter heads a ball during the Wildcats' match at Clarke Central on Friday, April 2. 

From scouting earlier this season, Apalachee boys’ soccer coach Chad Hooper knew Clarke Central was a particularly lethal offensive team off throw-ins and other set pieces, and the Wildcats made defending those attacks a heavy focus in practice leading up to the teams’ battle in Athens on Friday, April 2.

But just when the match seemed to be destined for overtime, the Gladiators broke through with the decisive goal on one of those set pieces. Following a Clarke Central free kick from the left side just outside the penalty box, Davis Gabriel knocked a follow-up shot past Apalachee goalkeeper David Duenas on the back post with 5:36 remaining in regulation, lifting the Gladiators to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.

With the win, Clarke Central (10-2-1, 5-1 GHSA Region 8-AAAAA) locked up the No. 2 seed in the region for the state playoffs and earned first-round hosting rights over Apalachee (8-5-1, 5-2), which finished third.

Senior Corbin Cutter gave the Wildcats the lead in the 17th minute of the match with a goal off an assist from Jared Romero, but it was the Gladiators who spent most of the rest of the night on the attack. Clayton Dufur evened the match less than three minutes into the second half, fielding a long ball from Cullen Bruner past the Wildcat defense and beating Duenas in a one-on-one chance.

Over the next 32 minutes, Duenas and the Apalachee back line withstood constant pressure from the Gladiators — with Duenas notching some huge saves — before Gabriel delivered the knockout blow. Apalachee had two more opportunities with a pair of corners in the closing minutes, but the Gladiators’ defense cleared both attempts away to hang on.

“It was a tough game and I knew it would be tough,” Hooper said. “We’ve been trying to stop those sets and, still, they scored off one. They’re a tough team and they deserved to win. They were running a lot more than some of my guys. We just didn’t finish as well.”

Despite the disappointment of the loss, Hooper has been pleased with the progress this season of his team, which has relied on several varsity newcomers to step into key positions. And he feels optimistic about his team’s chances when they travel to take on their first-round opponent, which appears to be Decatur High School. The Bulldogs (5-7-2) have locked up the No. 2 seed in Region 5, but don’t have any wins outside of region play to this point.

“We are stronger than I thought we’d be overall going into the year,” Hooper said. “We’ve had guys step up and take those positions where we lost guys to graduation last year, and we’re starting a freshman and four or five sophomores because they’re just playing better right now. They’ve done a good job all season and worked really hard as a team.

“Yeah, hosting (the first-round playoff match) would have been nice, but we can still move on past the first round. And we’ve generally played better when we’ve been away, so you never know.”

With more than two weeks still remaining until the first round, slated for April 21 by the GHSA, Hooper planned to give his players a week off during spring break to recharge their batteries after a grueling region run. They’ll host North Oconee in a non-region match April 13, when Hooper plans to play several junior-varsity members to afford some varsity players some additional rest, and they’ll have one more tune-up April 16 against crosstown rival Winder-Barrow.

“We’ll be back full-strength and full-speed for that one against Winder,” Hooper said. “It’s always an intense game against them, and even though we’re not in the same region this year, it’ll feel like a region game.

“It’ll be a nice game for us to compete in right before playoffs.”

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