This is why the Providence Christian boys soccer team left its fall league. For the state tournament and games like this.
The Stars, in just their third season of playing spring soccer, travel to Greater Atlanta Christian tonight for the Class AA/A state championship game. A big crowd was on hand for the two teams' regular-season meeting, won 7-3 by GAC on April 12, but an even bigger turnout is expected for tonight in the all-Gwinnett final.
"What I like about the spring is you have a state competition and you see a bunch of different teams instead of the same eight (in the fall league)," Providence boys coach Todd Henry said. "The state competition is a lot of fun."
It doesn't get any better for the Gwinnett rivals than tonight. Unranked Providence is playing in its first spring state title game, and No. 1 GAC is searching for its first outright state championship.
The host Spartans (20-2) get a major boost tonight with the return of South Carolina signee Sam Arthur, who missed his team's quarterfinal and semifinal games with a red card. Arthur has scored 35 goals, joining an attack that also features prolific scorers Chris Thomas (28 goals) and Allen Williams (20) and has posted 118 goals overall this season. Thomas scored three times in a Final Four win over Walker.
GAC will be without stopper Richard Klemm, weakening a defense that has to contend with top-notch Providence forwards Tyler Hoyt (19 goals) and Nathan Brannen (15).
"Richard's a cause for us," GAC head coach Thom Jacquet said. "We don't want to let him down. He's a huge part of our team."
Providence (17-4-1) also has its hands full with GAC's attack, although it has two veterans on defense in Jonathan Hull and Jay Collins. That group has to play considerably better than the first GAC game, when it gave up seven goals.
But that was a different Stars' team. This group has peaked at the right time and has made rally after rally in the playoffs.
"Our guys never quit," Henry said. "We've been down a goal each of the past three games and came back. Buford we were down three times. Our kids just never quit."
While Providence is new to the state finals, GAC has plenty of experience at that level. The Spartans shared the 2000 state title after a tie vs. Athens Academy, but they also have two state runner-up finishes in the last decade.
The most noteworthy was last season when the young Spartans lost to Pace Academy in the state finals. It was a painful loss at the time, but the players made it their mission to return to the championship game.
That game is tonight.
"Last year was a great experience all the way around," Jacquet said. "We didn't finish on top but it was good experience. And we were so young. We knew it wasn't the end of the line for us. We were so young we knew we had a good shot to be back."