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Soccer: Central outlasts Collins Hill to reach program's first Elite 8
Forsyth Central junior Ethan Rausch celebrates Tuesday after the Bulldogs' 1-0 win against Collins Hill in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs. - photo by David Roberts

Forsyth Central's historic season continued Tuesday with a 1-0 win against Collins Hill.

Ethan Rausch hammered home the only goal, Keegan Williford delivered a clean sheet in goal, and the Bulldogs are headed to the Elite Eight for the first time program history.

Central will face South Gwinnett on May 5 in the Class 7A quarterfinals.

“It’s a big deal. I’m super proud of these boys," Forsyth Central coach Will Gifford said. "They’ve earned it. It’s a senior-heavy team, and they have competed with great character all year. That was a really good Collins Hill team – a really good Collins Hill team. They put us under the last 25 minutes of that game and the boys just showed a ton of grit and intensity.”

Rausch's goal came with 28:13 left in the match. Alex Guzman brought the ball up the right side and lofted a long pass to Cody Moncrief, who turned and found Rausch waiting in front of the goal.

“I saw the right back stepping up to Cody, and then thank God Cody saw me. Beautiful ball," Rausch said. "I just shot it off my left foot and it went right in.”

The goal gave Central a 1-0 lead and forced Collins Hill to turn up its intensity, but the Eagles couldn't crack Williford. 

Central's junior keeper delivered a string of three straight saves just under the five-minute mark, including one a free kick from 16 yards out where he punched the ball out of the box and allowed the Bulldogs to gain possession.

Williford rose to the occasion again with 45 seconds left in the match, when Collins Hill pulled Kevin Lupercio from goal to take a free kick. Williford punched the ball away, then earned his final save of the night off the ensuing corner kick. 

“Personally, Keegan’s my man of the match," Rausch said. "His punches out, and one beautiful save here.”

Williford's first save of the night denied Collins Hill sophomore Zaid Handal just 90 seconds into the match and required Williford to drop to his knees to prevent the goal.

Central's back line played inspired defense all night, particularly junior Andy Guzman and Abraham Lemus, who each gave up several inches to Collins Hill's 6-foot-2 striker, Emmanuel Gyasi.

“Andy Guzman and Abraham Lemus have been lights out all year," Gifford said. "Hunter Broome and Andrew Harrington, those four guys have been phenomenal all year. But I felt like for me, a ton of guys had a great performance, but nobody played bigger than Keegan Williford tonight. He probably had six or seven times where he parried the ball away and gave us a chance to stop a goal or stop an attack. He was just phenomenal. Keegan was awesome tonight.”

On the other end of the field, 6-foot-4 defender Asani Redwood was a mismatch for the Bulldogs and helped keep Central's quick-strike offense in check during the first half.

Collins Hill took the first five shots of the game and dominated time of possession early, but Central nearly broke through right before halftime when Ridley Watson and Alex Guzman traded chances.

Guzman targeted Watson on a cross, but the pass was too strong and streaked past Watson. Watson corralled the loose ball and sent a cross of his own to Guzman, who dove feet first to knock the ball in but was beaten by a diving save from Lupercio.

Central had three shots on goal inside the first three minutes of the second half, but it wasn't until Rausch's game-winner nine minutes later that the Bulldogs finally broke through.

“It feels great. We put all this effort in," Rausch said. "I can’t be any more proud of this group of players and coaches.”