Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Berkmar soccer players, including Alexis Montanez, center, celebrate the Class AAAAAA state championship on Saturday following their win 2-0 win over Collins Hill.
KENNESAW --Playing fearless against a much more experienced opponent, "Los Patriots" completed their improbable run Saturday night.
Just a year after missing the playoffs, Berkmar and its Latino-heavy lineup knocked off defending state champion Collins Hill 2-0 at Kennesaw State to win the Class AAAAAA state championship. It was only the third athletic state title in school history, joining the back-to-back boys basketball champions of 2000 and 2001, and was Gwinnett's eighth boys soccer title in Georgia's largest class in the last 13 seasons.
Collins Hill, in its sixth straight title game appearance, had won three of those championships, but the most recent one went to improving Berkmar, whose enthusiastic fan base cheers when the home announcer calls the team "Los Patriots."
"It's a dream come true," said Berkmar boys head coach Tracy Crouch, who won a state title as Parkview's head coach in 2005. "Every kid's dream that plays high school soccer is the state championship, it's is the holy grail and we pulled it off. ... Our community, we take a bad rap at times, we're kind of the other side of the tracks if you will.
"I told them, 'Tonight it's time for the peasants to become princes.' And that's what happened. They deserve it. Every single bit of it."
While Collins Hill sported a senior-laden roster, albeit shorthanded with several of its top players on U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy teams, Berkmar (16-5-1) had a number of players with zero playoff experience before this season. The Patriots, despite having talented teams in recent seasons, haven't come close to a state final before Saturday night.
But after Collins Hill (17-6) got three decent scoring chances early, Berkmar steadied itself and controlled the second-half play after a 0-0 tie at intermission.
Kofi Twumasi and Awey Houry scored the Patriots' goals in the 42nd and 65th minutes. Twumasi also assisted Houry's goal.
"This was a really, really good game," said the Ghana-born Twumasi, one of the few non-Latino contributors for Berkmar. "We faced a hard team. We all came out and played as brothers. We leave as brothers. We accomplished everybody's dream. Everybody wanted to be state champions."
Collins Hill got a couple of early chances, but two attempts by Jordan Brust and one by Paul Ille were just off the mark. Outside of those, the Berkmar defense was solid against the Eagles' dynamic offense. Juan Carlos Lopez made four saves, but he wasn't tested often thanks to the stellar work of his defenders, led by Aaron Aguirre, Matheo Gallardo and Jonathan Dowis.
The closest Collins Hill came to scoring was late when Eli Carrasco hit the post on a free kick from just outside the penalty box in the 72nd minute.
"I don't know what hurts worse, losing here or not getting here at all," Collins Hill boys head coach Mike Burrell said. "I'm proud of my guys for getting here. A lot of people didn't think we would make it. It gives us something to work toward for next year."
Berkmar came out as the aggressor after halftime, finishing with a 5-1 second-half edge in corner kicks. The Region 8-AAAAAA champions also had an edge in shots until Collins Hill, already down 2-0, began pushing forward and Berkmar focused more on defense.
It took just 1 minute, 44 seconds after halftime for the Patriots to score the game's first goal. Rocky Guerra took a corner kick that Aguirre headed back in front of the goal. On the ensuing scramble, Twumasi hit a left-footed shot past Eagle goalkeeper Jackson Taylor.
The second goal came on a nice combination between Alexis Montanez and Twumasi, who tapped a pass to Houry for a decisive goal with barely more than 15 minutes remaining.
From there, the Berkmar players and fans could sense a milestone victory.
"It means a lot," Montanez said. "Our school was behind us. The community was behind us. We were able to do what other Berkmar teams haven't."
The Berkmar players took extra time on the Kennesaw State field after their triumph, sharing hugs and exchanging high-fives with their vocal fan base.
With good reason.
While many Gwinnett schools celebrate state titles with regularity, it doesn't happen frequently for Berkmar and its diverse population that makes it difficult to compete in certain sports.
Soccer, however, isn't one of them.
"Our team motto all year -- we have a pretty healthy Hispanic population at Berkmar -- was con todo, which means with everything," said Crouch, soaking wet from his post-game water bucket dousing from his players. "And that's exactly the way these guys played and practiced every day. I couldn't be more proud of them."