Photo: Karl L. Moore Central defender Ensar Graskovic (26) goes up for the header over Walton's Greg Carbo (6) during Tuesday night's game in the first round of the state playoffs at Central Gwinnett High School.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Coming off a disappointing finish to the region season and playing against perennially powerful Walton, the Central Gwinnett boys soccer team was determined not to look back with any regrets.
The Black Knights got back to the style of play that served them so well this season and beat the 2011 state champion Raiders 2-1 in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs Wednesday.
It was the first time in a long time that Central, ranked No. 6 in the state, has had a home playoff game.
"Close to 12 years," head coach Bryan Allen said. "And it was our first playoff win since Central's been in the top level (of state classifications).
"We were a little on edge because Walton has beaten us the last two times in the playoffs. The guys knew it. They just had to go out and see for themselves that we can hang with these guys."
Walton got the first good scoring opportunity on a bullet from the left side that sophomore goalkeeper Ricky Ortiz turned aside.
A few early jitters were not unexpected for the Black Knights.
"At the beginning, it was terrible because we were on a three-game losing skid and we just barely won against a team we usually beat pretty bad (a 1-0 win over Whitewater in the regular-season finale)," said senior captain Samir Ramic, who had the game-winning goal. "We pieced it together at practice, rebuilt what we started at the beginning.
"We played with a lot of heart and passion. We never gave up. Even when they scored the goal, we never put our heads down."
Ortiz wasn't shy about his feelings early in the game either.
"I felt nervous," Ortiz said. "I play, put in everything I have for the seniors because they give everything they can. Now that's it's playoffs, I'm more nervous for sure. But I've still got to play how I play."
It didn't show much. Ortiz was solid as a scoreless game moved past the 30-minute mark.
Walton had been playing impressively in front of it's own keeper, but made a crucial mistake near the top of the penalty box.
A crossing pass between defenders was picked off by Rigo Gudiel. The senior forward made a deft touch to get around the Raider closing on him and sent the ball into the bottom corner with 9:13 left in the first half.
The 1-0 lead was big for Central (14-4), which missed out on the Region 8-AAAAAA title after two 1-0 losses in the final weeks of the season.
"Losing some opportunities there at the end has refocused us," Allen said. "The team has kind of had to reflect upon how hard they work. This team has been together for three years and they didn't want to see three years go down in Round 1."
Ramic doubled the Black Knights' advantage less than four minutes into the second half.
Gudiel, motoring toward the box, was tackled by Walton's Walker Nance. Nance got a yellow card and Ramic lined up for a free kick about 25 yards out. He launched a shot that arced over a diving Walton goalie Michael Jurick and into the far corner for a 2-0 lead with 36:26 to go.
"Their strength was in the middle and we had to get them outside," Allen said. "They boys came together and they pushed that. We had to convince ourselves tonight we can play offense. We'd been a mostly defensive squad and we can play offense."
Walton, down to 10 men because of a second yellow card for Nance, cut the lead to 2-1 with 11:13 left on a goal by Haemo Ku. His shot got past Ortiz at the top of the penalty box and rolled in.
"(My defense) played excellent," Ortiz said. "That goal, it was just a miscommunication between me and my defender. They just happened to slip through and take advantage."
The Raiders (10-6-1) kept pressing, looking for the equalizer to extend their season, but Ortiz had one more big save and closed out the win.
"It's definitely a good start for us," Ortiz said. "We're starting to get our momentum back and hopefully we'll keep our run alive."