Staff Photo: John Bohn Berkmar's Israel Lopez (8) runs toward the ball while defended by East Coweta's Todd Davis (18) during the first half of a boys soccer Class AAAAAA semifinal state tournament game played at Berkmar on Wednesday.
State championship soccer games are nothing new for Tracy Crouch.
He won multiple state titles as Karl Bostick's longtime Parkview boys assistant, then won the 2005 state crown as the Panthers' head coach. Now at Berkmar, he is back in the big game in a much different scenario than his previous experiences.
At Parkview, state finals appearances, and championships, were routine. His 2005 state title squad was a product of the program's high expectations, with a senior-laden team rolling to the championship.
He now coaches a young Berkmar team, one that missed the playoffs last season and makes its first state title game appearance today against defending state champion Collins Hill at Kennesaw State. The Class AAAAAA final kicks off at 7:30 p.m.
"It's been a long time since I've been there, but not too long," Crouch said of the finals. "It's such a privilege to be the last two teams standing when there are a lot of good teams that fell along the way. We're lucky to still be in it. Collins Hill has had a dynasty for a few years here. We've got our work cut out for sure."
While Berkmar's playoff experience is on the coaching side in Crouch, it's the opposite situation for Collins Hill and first-year Eagles coach Mike Burrell.
Burrell, head coach in the past at Dacula and South Gwinnett, has years of experience, just not in the playoffs. Fortunately, he coaches a veteran team that has reached the last six state championship games, winning titles in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
"I've never made it past the second round," a laughing Burrell said of his personal state playoff experience. "I'm in uncharted territory here. But my guys know what to do. They've been there, done that."
The all-Gwinnett final is a rematch from earlier this season, when Collins Hill won 2-0 on Feb. 19. Three months after that meeting, both teams have made substantial changes and the Eagles didn't have star midfielder Eli Carrasco back in the lineup yet. Carrasco is one of several players on the roster who have been a part of numerous playoff games, like goalkeeper Jackson Taylor, defender Freddie Maier and others.
From that point, both have improved greatly. Berkmar (15-5-1) is now No. 3 in the state, while Collins Hill (17-5) is ranked eighth. They'll be 1-2 in the final rankings and one of those two will win Gwinnett's eighth state title in the last 13 years in Georgia's largest classification.
"It's great for Gwinnett County, I guess you have to go back to Brookwood-Parkview for the last (all-Gwinnett boys soccer final)," Burrell said. "It's been a long time since that's happened. It's great for the county, especially with all the hype about how good the Fulton and Cobb teams were."
While Collins Hill hopes to add another piece to what is certainly a boys soccer dynasty, Berkmar is after history with a young team led by dynamic playmakers Kofi Twumasi, Rocky Guerra and Alexis Montanez. The Patriots have won just two athletic state championships in school history --boys basketball in 2000 and 2001.
Their current boys soccer coach already has a handful of them, but they came at Berkmar's crosstown rival.
"Parkview had sort of that tradition like Collins Hill has developed recently," Crouch said. "At Berkmar, we're bone dry in those types of experiences and accolades. They've never tasted that part of the apple. I hope they get a chance to taste it. It's sweet."