MARIETTA -- If the state didn't know who South Gwinnett was, it knows now.
The Comets, unranked and a heavy underdog, walked into unbeaten Lassiter and delivered a stunning 2-1 victory to knock out the previously undefeated and No. 1 team in Class AAAAAA. Tied at 1-1, but playing on its heels for most of the second half, South Gwinnett shocked the Trojans when Derek Denton headed the ball over the outstretched arms of Lassiter keeper Justin Shaw with 2:07 remaining. Jorge Cuenca assisted on the play that gave the Comets their first playoff win in more than 20 years. The couple of dozen South Gwinnett fans in attendance stormed the field and celebrated with players.
"A defender was in front of me, but when the ball came over I just stepped back and headed it in," said Denton, a defender who scored just his second goal of the season. "I'm excited. This is our first time in the playoffs and we beat the No. 1 team in Georgia."
Comets coach Chris Calvin, a 1998 graduate of South, called the win easily the biggest of his coaching career and possibly the school's history. Calvin said all week he impressed upon his team to believe that they could pull off the upset. And they bought in.
"I told them, it's all about belief," Calvin said. "We believed, we wanted it. It wasn't pretty, but we've been grinding out wins all year long." Only one of South Gwinnett's games (a win over Walnut Grove) has been decided by more than one goal, according to the coach.
The Comets (14-4-1), who hadn't made the playoffs since 2008, will play Lambert on Tuesday.
It appeared as though Wednesday's game was headed into overtime. South was the aggressor early on and jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the third minute when Austin Varney boomed one in the upper right corner over Shaw's reach. But Lassiter came out after halftime looking like the top team in the state. Trey Luscre scored on a header assisted by Clay Dimick less than two minutes in. From that point, Lassiter dominated play. "We were getting clobbered," Calvin said.
But South's defense, led by senior captain Chris Keller, Varney and keeper Max Catamaglia, snuffed several Lassiter scoring opportunities. Occasionally, the defenders will get beat, "but it won't happen twice," Calvin said. Still, the Comets were in trouble because they lost their aggressiveness after Lassiter's goal. Late in the game, Calvin moved Sekou Thornell up top to give the Comets more speed and then did the same with the 6-3 Denton, a move that paid huge dividends.
Keller said there were going to be either tears of joy or tears or tears of sadness after the game. Lassiter coach Sam Dietrich refused to speak with a reporter after the game. The Trojans finished 16-1.
"This is easily the biggest win of my career," the captain said. "I can't even describe. They may have outshot us 10-2, but we scored two and they scored one."
The Comets entered the game with confidence and feeling no pressure, Keller said. "We knew what we needed to do and we got it done. We played our soccer. We've got heart."