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Clarke sparks Spartans' victory

Photo: David McGregor
GAC'S Denzel Clarke dribbles through a Buford double team during the first half of the Spartans' victory over the Wolves Friday night.

Photo: David McGregor GAC'S Denzel Clarke dribbles through a Buford double team during the first half of the Spartans' victory over the Wolves Friday night.

NORCROSS -- With GAC's boys soccer team in need of a breakout game, Denzel Clarke gave it one.

The forward scored four goals and added an assist as the ninth-ranked Spartans rallied from an early deficit to score six unanswered goals and roll to a 6-1 upset of No. 6 Buford on Friday night at home.

The win, which avenged a 4-2 loss to the Wolves (6-2-2, 2-1) earlier this season, was much needed for the Spartans (3-6, 2-2) to keep pace with Buford, Providence and Wesleyan in a crowded playoff race in Area 11-AA/A.

"This keeps us in (the race)," GAC coach Thom Jacquet said. "All four teams are very similar. Every game is important. Every goal is important. The fact we gave up just one (Friday) night was good for us.

"We did (need this). It's just a different team (from the earlier loss to Buford). We didn't feel like we did a lot right over there."

It didn't look like a lot would go right for the Spartans in the first eight-plus minutes on Friday, either.

That was especially true after Gerardo Mondragon blasted a free kick from just outside the 23-yard mark inside the right sideline into the upper left corner of the net to put Buford up 1-0 with 32:32 left in the first half.

However, the goal seemed to energize both GAC and Clarke, who had just three goals this season coming in, but began the Spartans' answer less than four minutes later.

After Matt Carothers came up with a turnover deep in Buford territory, he fed Clarke, who beat his man into the penalty area before finishing into the upper left corner to tie the game 1-1 at the 28:09 mark.

It was a foreshadowing of things to come as the Spartans, led by Clarke, kept the pressure on the Wolves' defense, forcing many turnovers.

"When we played over at their place, they kept trapping us," Jacquet said. "Once we beat the trap (Friday night), they stopped trapping, and that opened things up for us a bit. And we passed the ball very well."

That aggressive pressure and crisp passing led to several scoring chances for Clarke and several other Spartans throughout the first half.

The combination of several timely saves from Rutilo Mondragon and a few missed shots kept the game tied.

However, Clarke finally broke through by taking advantage of another Buford miscue on Steven Yates' long, high ball into the penalty area with 14:23 to play in the half.

With a Buford defender waiting for high bounce to come down, Clarke got there first and chipped a shot over Ruitilo Mondragon to give GAC a 2-1 lead heading into intermission.

"Watching them the last time, I saw they weren't very technical in the back," Clarke said. "I figured maybe if we pressured them with more intensity, we could get more chances."

That pressure paid off with another chance less than seven minutes into the second half, when Clarke charged hard after a 50-50 ball just inside the top of the penalty area.

Instead of trying to grab the ball, goalkeeper Rutilo Mondragon tried to clear it, but his kick deflected off Clarke and into the net, giving him a natural hat trick and increasing the Spartans' lead to 3-1 with 32:55 remaining.

"In my 10 years, I've never seen balls deflect twice like (Clarke's second and third goals) and into our own goal," Buford coach Brandon Manders said. "But without Clarke being aggressive, those plays don't happen. His hustle caused those two mistakes."

And he continued hustling even into the final 11 minutes, this time tapping a give and go to Kyle Reese, who buried his chance to make the score 4-1 with 10:38 left.

Stewart Aberhart then added a goal with 6:29 remaining before Clarke applied the finishing touch off Aberhart's assist with six seconds left to match his career high and end a nightmarish evening for Buford.

"GAC played well," Manders said. "The one positive for us is that we still control our own destiny. We just have to play better the remainder of the season."