Clarke sparks GAC boys to first-round win

AVONDALE ESTATES -- Greater Atlanta Christian entered Thursday's Class AA/A soccer playoff opener at Paideia looking for a confidence boost, and got one.

Minus eight graduated starters from last year's championship team, GAC was seeking an identity independent of a Spartans team that reached state finals three of the last four years and won championships in 2007 and 2009.

Their 1-0 win, sparked by Denzel Clarke's goal in the 38th minute, might have given them that Thursday.

"We don't really sit back and use history for anything," said GAC's 19th-year coach Thom Jacquet. "These are all new guys doing their own thing."

Despite coming to Paideia's Python Park on a three-game skid, the Spartans kicked off their 14th consecutive playoff appearance with the needed consistency to end Paideia's season.

The defining moment came late in a first half with relatively few shots. Clarke emerged from a cluster about 15 yards out, chested the ball to his feet, broke briefly right, then tucked a shot inside the right post.

Clarke hopes his team-high 17th goal gives the Spartans needed propulsion to continue in the playoffs on the road.

"We've stepped up really well as a team today and showed we can accomplish anything," the junior said. "We showed we can win if we play hard and keep up our intensity."

Simply reaching state was already an accomplishment for rebuilt GAC, which strung together consecutive wins only once this season and wasn't assured its area's second playoff spot until a 3-2 win over Providence Christian in the penultimate week of the regular season.

Reaching Tuesday's second round against the Athens Academy-Dawson County winner was a confidence boost for a Spartans team that failed to win area for the first time in seven seasons and had graduated its single-season and career scoring leader, Chris Thomas.

"We felt good about ourselves, even in the middle of the season, though," Jacquet said. "These guys knew from the start of the season what they were up against and that they had to be patient and let things develop."

Paideia coach Eric Thomas, whose Pythons (9-5-2) won Area 12-AA/A, said his team was keenly aware of how dangerous GAC (7-10) was. Rebuilding or not. Losing record or not.

"They're still GAC," Thomas said. "I've learned your record means nothing once you get to state."