NORCROSS - The timid, inexperienced freshmen that plugged graduation holes in Greater Atlanta Christian's lineup are starting to grow up.
Defending state champion Aquinas witnessed another stage of growth on Tuesday night as the host Spartans got goals from a pair of ninth-graders for a 2-0 victory in the Class AA/A boys soccer semifinals. Chris Thomas and Eric Fletcher scored first-half goals and third-ranked GAC held on for the shutout against the state's No. 2 team.
With the win, GAC advances to Friday's state championship game vs. Pace Academy at Lovett. Pace beat Lovett 3-0 on Tuesday.
"As a freshman, it feels really good (to make the state finals)," Thomas said.
"That's not what I was expecting, not at the beginning of the season."
Aquinas (20-2) was clearly facing a different GAC team that the one it played back on Feb. 18, when the Fighting Irish won 3-1. It was the third game of the season for the young Spartans, who were playing without South Carolina commitment Sam Arthur and Richard Klemm that night.
Since the beginning of the season GAC (12-8-1) has played a loaded schedule, one that forced its youth to grow up fast. The team has just three seniors.
"I think our tough schedule really helped us," said head coach Thom Jacquet, whose team won its only soccer state title in 2000. "We played 17 teams that were ranked when we played them this year, and (Aquinas) didn't have that kind of schedule. Our kids have been through the battles. They've been tested.
"One thing I thought for sure, I knew I would have four freshmen starting (this season). And I knew they had to be tested. So we made a tough schedule from the start."
Two of those freshmen made veteran plays to key Tuesday's win.
After a slow start to the match, Thomas broke through with an exceptional goal. Arthur sent a header down the right side to his freshman frontrunner, who noticed that Aquinas goalkeeper Matt Cranford was well off his line.
So Thomas lofted a shot over Cranford and into the net for a 1-0 GAC lead in the 17th minute.
"He's a goal scorer," Jacquet said of Thomas, who scored two goals in GAC's 4-0 quarterfinal win vs. Holy Innocents' last week. "I had him in junior high two years and he scored 30 goals in junior high. He can score with his left foot, his right foot, in the air. It just took him awhile at the beginning of the year to get settled in.
"But the last six or seven games I think he's scored 13 goals. He's a guy that's winning games for us."
GAC had a chance for another goal in the 29th minute when Arthur was taken down in the penalty box, but Nick Ramon's ensuing PK was stopped by Cranford.
The second goal finally came in the 32nd minute when Thomas assisted with a long throw-in toward the near post. Fletcher, his fellow freshman, ran on for a header but missed and the ball caromed off his back and into the goal.
With a two-goal halftime deficit, Aquinas kept the pressure on in the second half as GAC spent much of the period in a defensive mode, struggling to maintain possession. But time after time, the Spartans made clearances and frustrated the visitors.
The Fighting Irish had numerous chances in the second half, but most were misfires that didn't force saves from GAC goalkeeper Matt Wolfe. Wolfe made three saves in the second half, the last his best of the night against a close shot from David Leonard.
But open shots like that were rare for Aquinas because of the Spartans' swarming defense, led by Klemm, John Strohmeyer, Roy Lee and Taylor Wisted.
"Defensively really, we just kept the game in front of us," Jacquet said.
"(Aquinas) had a lot of possession in the second half, but they didn't get a lot of great chances."
Now GAC can focus on Pace, which is hosting the final at Lovett because it needed a site with ample seating. At 18-1-2, Pace is the top-ranked team in the state.
But the grown-up Spartans, at one time 5-8-1 this season, think anything is possible.
"I'm excited (about playing for the title)," Thomas said. "I just want to win."