Staff Photo: John Bohn Brookwood's Kelson Brunelle (6) and Collins Hill's Khallil Stewart (2) attempt to kick the ball during the first half of a Class AAAAA semifinal soccer game Tuesday. At right is Brookwood's Trevor Mooney (12).
SUWANEE --The postseason success isn't just a goal for the Collins Hill boys soccer program. It's the expectation, for both players and fans.
"We'll hear (students) say, 'We'll catch you in the state finals,'" Collins Hill head coach Drew Prentice said. "It's what they expect. It's a lot like our wrestling team. Everybody expects us to be in the finals."
Who can blame them?
The third-ranked Eagles reached their fifth straight Class AAAAA state championship game Tuesday night with a hard-fought, 1-0 victory at No. 2-ranked Brookwood in the semifinals. They now host top-ranked Centennial (20-1-1) in Friday night's championship game with an eye on their third state title in a five-year span.
Getting to the final wasn't easy against a stout Brookwood defense, but Collins Hill finally broke through on Eli Carrasco's goal in the 67th minute.
"It means a lot to me and a lot to the team (to make the finals again," Carrasco said. "Collins Hill is always competitive, but there are a lot of competitive teams in Gwinnett County. You just have to push yourself and work hard every day to get back here."
Collins Hill, which finished with an 8-2 edge in shots on goal and a 6-3 advantage in corner kicks, put up some tricky shots early but Bronco goalkeeper Brandon Schuster was up to the task. Schuster made seven saves, including two nice ones on shots by Carrasco and Carlos Estrada in the first half.
Eagle goalkeeper Jackson Taylor handled his two difficult shots by punching each over the goal, including a nice header by Kelson Brunelle in the first half.
Brookwood (17-4) suffered a huge loss in the 53rd minute when central midfielder Brahan Gamarra went down with an injury and didn't return. The Broncos were already playing without injured central midfielder Brandon Morrow.
Collins Hill (17-4) kept the heat on and maintained an even stronger hold on possession without Gamarra on the field, taking advantage in the 67th minute with the match's only goal.
Amiri Abraham, who riddled the Bronco midfield much of the game, set up the goal with a nifty move on the right flank, that opened up his cut to the middle.
The ball ended up on the left side with Carrasco, who ripped a low shot from just outside the 18-yard line that got by Schuster.
"I don't remember much about (the goal)," Carrasco said. "I just remember the keeper diving and people going crazy. It was fantastic."
It was the only shot that fooled Schuster all night, and the only blemish for a Bronco defense led by Cameron Grassmyer and Bryson Dorsey.
"Brookwood's a good team from top to bottom and we knew it would be a goal or maybe two deciding it," Prentice said. "Their goalkeeper made some great saves, I thought we might sneak one in during the first half. But their defense is very solid. And they play with tons of heart."
Brookwood had won 15 of 16 entering the semifinal showdown.
"It was a great game, two good teams and unfortunately one of them has to lose," Brookwood head coach Danny Klinect said. "That's two top-notch teams there. ... We tried to limit (Collins Hill) to long shots and I think all of their shots came outside the 18. But give credit to (Carrasco). He had about two yards of space, he hit it and he hit it in the right spot.
"I can't explain how proud I am of our boys. No one expected us to be here."
As much as Brookwood's defense held, Collins Hill's back line was flawless. Khallil Stewart, Freddie Maier, Zach Jones and Edan Mendoza kept a Bronco offense, which had just scored four goals on nationally ranked Lassiter, off the scoreboard.
The Broncos made a few nice runs in the counterattack, but never netted anything against Taylor and the Eagles, whose large visiting crowd matched host Brookwood's substantial attendance.
"It was the biggest crowd we've had all year," Taylor said. "It was definitely the hardest game we've played so far. Hat's off to Brookwood. ... It was a tough game but I thought our boys were more fit at the end."
The big-game atmosphere was fun for the Collins Hill players, who expect to get more of the same Friday in another state championship game.
But the Eagles are used to it.
"There's a lot of pressure, but you've got to focus on the final result," Carrasco said. "You've got to trust your team and trust each other. That's what we have."