Champions' path: Southeast romped through Class 4A playoffs in 2021 for second soccer title

Sergio Robledo/Snaps by Serg

Southeast Whitfield High School players celebrate after winning the Class 4A state soccer championship.

After a few years of success, Southeast Whitfield High School broke through for their first state championship in boys soccer in 2017.

After a few deep playoff runs in the following years, the Raiders entered 2021 without anyone who played on that championship squad.

The coach is new, too. Hector Holguin took over the boys program after Todd Close, the championship-winning coach, decided to focus solely on coaching the girls program in 2018.

Holguin and the Raiders made a Final Four run in 2019, but couldn't break through to the title game.

This year however, an undefeated Southeast team (18-0-3) won by at least two goals in every playoff game in a romp to the school's second state title, defeating East Hall 4-0 in the Class 4A championship game on May 13.

"This was my first state final and my first state champion as a sophomore, this team was amazing not because we were all good but because we would all support each other and loved each other," said Southeast's Diego Castillo.

Five games into their 2021 campaign, Southeast was 3-0-2, but had already faced two of the toughest tests on their regular season schedule. The three wins were dominant ones over Creekview, Cass and Mount Vernon. One tie was a 1-1 game with South Gwinnett, which would go on to make the state semifinals in Class 7A.

The other? A draw with cross-town foe Dalton, the eventual Class 6A state champions.

The two Whitfield County teams played two games in 2021. Both ended without a winner being decided. The teams tied 1-1 in February, then concluded the regular season with a 3-3 game in April.

Between those two games, Southeast put together many wins. Nine straight to be exact, including a 2-1 win over Northwest Whitfield, a 2-1 win over eventual Class 3A champion Coahulla Creek and a 4-1 win over Pickens that helped the Raiders wrap up Region 7-4A as the undefeated champion.

The Raiders began their playoff run with two statement wins.

Southeast pummeled Arabia Mountain 10-0 in the first round, then welcomed Chestatee in the Sweet 16. Southeast squeaked by with a 1-0 win in a road contest with Chestatee during the regular season. The result looked much different in the playoffs.

Southeast led 2-0 at halftime, then went on to add three goals in the final 10 minutes of action to get a 7-0 victory.

The 2-0 win over Benedictine in the Elite 8 was the smallest margin of victory the Raiders had in the playoffs, but even then, the game didn't feel even that close. Southeast dominated possession of the ball all game long, but couldn't coax the ball into the net, despite some near-misses. The game was locked in a scoreless tie through 75 minutes of play, before Victor Garcia finally broke through with a header that would send the Raiders into the Final Four. Jerry Favela added another just a minute later.

In the state semifinals, Southeast hosted Jefferson. Southeast led 1-0 at halftime, but Jefferson tied it up just three minutes into the second half. From there, Southeast poured in three goals to break away and earn their first state finals appearance since that 2017 championship. Lupe Beltran and Julian Hernandez scored, then Castillo added the final nail just a minute after the Hernandez goal, earning the Raiders a 4-1 win.

In the Class 4A championship game, played at Duluth High School, East Hall barely had a chance. Favela put Southeast up 1-0 at halftime, but yet another second-half blitz from the Raiders put the championship game away. Nathaniel Villanueva and Joel Fraire each scored goals in the first six minutes of play in the second half. Fernando Castaneda scored the final goal of the historic Southeast season with 20 minutes to go.

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