— There were times this year when Ramiro Huitanda made scoring goals look way too easy, especially considering all the obstacles in his way. He was the center of opposing teams’ game plans. He received the majority of their defensive attention. He was the player they had to stop. But all of their attempts proved hopeless.
The Dalton High School senior forward set a single-season program record with 47 goals this year, breaking the mark of 35 he registered as a junior, and helped lead the Catamounts to an undefeated record and the Class 4A state championship. For his spectacular season, he has been selected as The Daily Citizen’s 2013 All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year, the second straight time he has earned the honor.
Joining him on The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Soccer Team are three fellow Cats — Eder Mora, Alan Pantaleon and Salvador Rodriguez — plus North Murray’s Ismael Cruz and Manuel Gonzalez; Northwest Whitfield’s David Perez and Miguel Villa; and Southeast Whitfield’s Isael Gutierrez, Jorge Hurtado and Alex Rosillo. All-Area honorees are chosen by the newspaper’s sports staff based on input from local coaches.
Even when facing the opponents who knew him best — intracounty and Region 7-4A rivals Northwest and Southeast — Huitanda enjoyed some success in 2013, scoring five goals in the seven matches against the Bruins and Raiders. One of those goals came in Dalton’s win against the latter in the state title match, a victory that allowed the Cats to win the program’s second title — the first was a shared Class 4A championship with Heritage-Rockdale in 2003 — and finish 22-0.
Against other teams, Huitanda was simply prolific. He scored five goals in one match twice (against LaFayette and Cass), had four goals each versus Tennessee opponents Ooltewah and Siegel and recorded hat tricks in five other games. He was the most noticeable part of Dalton’s offense, which rarely had trouble finding the net and won all but one game by two or more goals.
“Some players would tell us in the game ‘Just end it already,’” Huitanda said.
Huitanda also set Dalton’s career record for goals, finishing with 106 to top 2006 graduate Luis Salazar’s mark of 76.
“He blew it away,” Cats coach Matt Cheaves said.
And he did all of it in three years, with just two of them as a starter.
Huitanda began playing soccer when he was 10 and first joined a school team as a sixth-grader at Dalton Middle. He didn’t play as a freshman at Dalton High but decided to return the following year.
“He came to tryouts and we were really impressed,” Cheaves recalled. “In a practice game against Alexander, we put him in second at around the 20-minute mark and he scored within three minutes. He just immediately started scoring goals for us. It was good to know he’d be there and threatening all the time.”
Huitanda scored 24 goals in 2011 but truly broke out as a junior, notching 35 goals and helping Dalton reach the Class 3A quarterfinals.
Entering his senior season, Huitanda received all the attention from opponents. But his speed and quickness without losing any control of the ball made him close to unstoppable.
“I wanted to break 35,” Huitanda said. “I wanted to score at least 40. I had a good feeling I could do it.
“More people would try and guard me. I had man marks. I just outrun them. If they give me a little space, then I’m gone.”
Said Cheaves, “Sometimes he’d just make them look clumsy.”
But the 5-foot-6-inch, 160-pound Huitanda wasn’t just a speedy forward. Whenever teams had a body on him, Cheaves said often he’d use it to his advantage.
“He is physically very strong, especially for his height and weight. I’ve seen guys run into him and he’ll just take that momentum and accelerate off it,” Cheaves said. “He has a real knack for scoring goals. Those players are rare and hard to find. It’s so tough for anyone to mark him because he can turn on a dime and go to his right or left. If he tees up, you have to bite into it and then he turns and goes the other way.”
On the rare occasion a defense presented a problem to Huitanda, he was still productive.
“He’s never been one to shy away from passing the ball to others up front,” Cheaves said. “And everyone pays so much attention to him that it opens up things for the others.”
While he stood out even in a talented lineup, Huitanda was not Dalton’s only offensive threat. The Cats scored 132 goals, and much of their success could be credited to the way they attacked opponents: relentlessly.
Huitanda had no trouble playing that way.
“If you have the ball on their side and the more we pressure, the more they get tired and give up the ball. And once they give it up, we attack,” Huitanda said. “Put pressure on and stay with your man.”
With records and a state title in his possession, Huitanda leaves Dalton believing he reached his potential and helped the Cats do the same.
“I’m satisfied with my career,” he said. “I think I did what I was supposed to do, and the team, too. ... With this team, I’ll miss it. I have a lot of memories right here.”
Here’s a look at the rest of this year’s all-area honorees:
• Ismael Cruz, North Murray, MF: While leading the Mountain-eers to their second straight region championship, Cruz did a little bit of everything.
He could score. He could assist.
The senior was just “naturally gifted,” coach Matt Chambers said.
“Another big thing was ball skills,” Cheaves said. “He could take on two or three guys at once, and even if he didn’t get the shot, it allowed other guys to move.”
Cruz scored 24 times and assisted on 12 other goals. He also was the main leader of a team with state experience — North Murray reached the Class 2A quarterfinals last season — and helped the Mountaineers reach the second round of the Class 3A bracket this season. Playing in the center midfield position, he had the freedom to stretch himself to the outside on attacks or stay compact to control the middle.
But even as a leader, he let his actions make the most noise.
“For him, it wasn’t talking. It was his intensity on the field,” Chambers said. “When the game was on the line, he’d volunteer to (move) to forward. He’d do everything he could to get us a goal.”
This is the second straight all-area selection for Cruz.
• Manuel Gonzalez, North Murray, GK: North Murray’s defense wasn’t as great as Dalton’s — the Mountaineers allowed 17 goals in 19 games, while the Cats gave up just eight in 22 — but Gonzalez bailed his team out on numerous occasions en route to another region championship.
“He gets the defense where they need to be,” Chambers said. “He also is incredibly athletic. He makes up for not being a huge keeper. He’s made some incredibly difficult saves.”
Some of those came in regulation time, and others while facing penalty kicks in game-deciding shootouts. In a victory versus Coahulla Creek, Gonzalez saved two penalty attempts to help North Murray earn a victory.
The junior also plays intelligently. Chambers said he knows what shots aren’t effective and tricks the strikers into giving up a potentially better opportunity for an open one from further away. He made 84 saves and helped on 10 shutouts.
“If you talk about being a leader, he’s a leader for sure,” Chambers said. “A lot of times, he’ll give them a shot if it’s a bad shot. From there, his athleticism takes over.”
This is his first all-area selection after earning honorable mention a year ago.
• Isael Gutierrez, Southeast, DEF: Although just a sophomore, he served as one of the team’s captains.
And Raiders coach Kevin Kettenring summed him up with one word: consistent.
“As a defender, he’s just real consistent in the back,” Kettenring said. “He’s just a great kid all around.”
Gutierrez, the team’s sweeper, helped the Raiders claim seven shutouts. In their 2-0 Class 4A state semifinals win versus Northwest, Gutierrez often covered the area behind his fellow defenders and reacted to over-the-top passes to the Bruins’ strikers.
“He likes that middle-of-the-field rush, that central position where he keeps the game in front of him,” Kettenring said.
Plus, his vocal leadership served well in a position where the entire field is in front of him.
“You can hear him probably more than anybody on the field,” Kettenring said. “His command of the game and reading the game, and his quickness and all-out speed is great. But to me, his intelligence is what’s great. I see him doing things way beyond what a sophomore would do. Just his ability to be calm under pressure and amid chaos.”
This is his second straight all-area selection.
• Jorge Hurtado, Southeast, MF: Described as the “heart and soul” of the Raiders by Kettenring, the senior watched this year’s final game from somewhere other than the field or sidelines.
But while he missed the Raiders’ state title match against Dalton as a result of drawing a red card in the final minutes of a 2-0 overtime semifinals win at Northwest two days prior, Hurtado was a big part of the reason the team made their postseason run.
Scoring 11 times and tallying 20 assists, Hurtado has something Kettenring said you “have to have” in order to play center midfield: a great left foot and a great right foot.
“Not just shooting, but someone who can pass to either side of the field with confidence and accuracy,” Kettenring said. “I wish it had finished better for him.”
More quiet than Rosillo, Hurtado was a captain who led by actions.
“He was another guy in practice that was panting and laying on the ground because he exhausted himself in workouts,” Kettenring said. “You don’t see that often in players, where they challenge and push themselves even when no one is watching.”
• Eder Mora, Dalton, MF: The only underclassman starting for the Cats, Mora showed the years without Huitanda and Pantaleon, who are lost to graduation, could still be productive thanks to the center midfielder who showed great potential and considerable success even as a sophomore.
Also an all-area football selection this school year — he also earned all-state honors for his play as a linebacker/defensive back — Mora scored 12 goals and accumulated 15 assists for Dalton.
“Eder is dominant in the middle of the field,” Cheaves said. “Physically, he won’t be pushed around by anybody. ... I’ve never seen anybody who works quite as hard as he does. In training and practice, the intensity is always high. There’s never a lower gear.”
Just because Mora has talent as a defender, passer and scorer doesn’t mean Cheaves is considering switching his position with eight starters graduating. Cheaves said Mora will stay in the center midfield spot, where he can play the offense’s quarterback role.
“A lot of times you describe your center midfielder like that, as a general,” Cheaves said. “He’s kind of involved in everything, part of the offense and part of the defense.”
This is Mora’s first all-area selection. He earned honorable mention as a freshman.
• Alan Pantaleon, Dalton, F: Pantaleon’s 26 goals would have been a single-season record at most schools, Cheaves said. Just seven years ago, that list would have included Dalton — Salazar’s 26 goals in 2006 gave way to Irvin Espinal’s 28 in 2007 before Huitanda left those numbers far behind.
But playing in the shadow of Huitanda takes “a special individual” as well, Cheaves added.
A senior, the unselfish Pantaleon was the Robin to Huitanda’s Batman, emerging when teams focused too much on the speedy forward.
“Ramiro and Alan, the tandem of them together, they’re just so familiar with one another,” Cheaves said. “He’s the guy playing alongside the guy scoring all the goals and breaking the records. He’s working just as hard and setting up a lot of those goals.”
Pantaleon added 14 assists to his stats, but Cheaves will remember most his ability to score off volleys.
“Alan really shoots the ball well out of the air. (Dalton assistant coach Jim Wickes) and I were talking about that the other day,” Cheaves said. “For a ball coming in on a cross, for him to get it completely square with it coming 80 miles an hour, he can strike that really well. He always got the sweet spot on the ball.”
This is Pantaleon’s first appearance on the all-area team.
• David Perez, Northwest, F: The senior broke a single-season school record with 25 goals, one year after Giovanni Aguero — an honorable mention to this year’s all-area team — set the standard at 21.
More importantly, the “emotional leader” of the team was a driving force in the deepest postseason run in program history, just a year after the Bruins won a state playoffs game for the first time and reached the Class 4A quarterfinals.
“I think there’s no doubt David was one of, if not the emotional leader on our team,” coach Ryan Scoggins said. “He was always vocal in the huddles and before matches. ... If he was fiery and energetic, he knew the team would take on that. It was a good thing to always be able to count on. If we needed a late goal, we knew David would always fight as hard as he could to get it.”
Scoggins noted Perez’s speed and knack for getting into scoring position, even if he wasn’t always the one finishing. He had 18 assists.
“He was so good with timing those runs and getting behind outside backs,” Scoggins said. “I’d say he has double-digit penalty kicks with him getting behind defenders and getting fouled.”
This is his second straight all-area selection.
• Salvador Rodriguez, Dalton, DEF: Eight goals. In 22 matches, the Cats allowed only eight goals.
They had 16 shutouts and allowed just one goal in the state tournament.
And without Rodriguez in the sweeper role, that doesn’t happen.
“In a couple games, in my opinion, he was the player of the game,” Cheaves said. “There’d be a breakaway and there was Salvador pulling the ball away and then moving the ball to the other side.”
He went on to call Rodriguez, a junior, “probably the smartest soccer player on the team” before adding, “That’s what you want from someone in that position. Communication from that spot is very important. One mistake and you give up a goal. He did a great job of communicating with the other guys. His timing on the ball and timing to know when to go clean up the play was perfect.”
Additionally, Rodriguez scored two goals this season, including the first of the state title match versus Southeast, a shot that covered at least 40 yards before it arced over the keeper’s head.
This is his first all-area selection.
• Alex Rosillo, Southeast, MF: While he played the same outside midfield position he had in 2012, Rosillo’s role changed a bit from his junior to senior season.
Instead of being a prominent goal scorer, he became more of a supporting role player on offense — but he did that job very well.
One of the three captains, Rosillo, nicknamed “Bofo,” tallied 16 assists.
“In our past formations, he was on the outside but more of a true wing player where he was supposed to be in the box and scoring,” said Kettenring, who became the head coach this year after several seasons assisting Jamison Griffin, who resigned in 2012. “In my formation it was different. He was in more of a supportive role, a table-setter.”
However, he could score when the team needed it. He did so 14 times.
“Bofo did play some up front, depending on who we were playing,” Kettenring said. “He was a versatile player. A lot of times I’d look up and he had made the change already before I could change it. There was that understanding of the game and what we needed.”
This is his first all-area recognition after earning honorable mention as a sophomore.
• Miguel Villa, Northwest, DEF: As a sophomore, the sweeper was good enough to make the all-area lineup. As a junior, the team began experimenting with his wide-ranging skills at other positions.
But it wasn’t long — only a couple of games — before Scoggins knew where Villa needed to be.
“We started the season with him in the midfield,” he said. “After we played Coahulla Creek and Ridgeland, we felt we needed Miguel in the back line. So we moved Cielo Nunez up to midfield from the back line. Miguel did a great job shifting defense around and changing the field if it was passed back to him. He even had the ability to send it over the top to the forwards from that sweeper position.”
Northwest recorded six shutouts — including a 2-0 Sub-region 7B-4A win versus Southeast — and Villa’s sweeper role was the most important out of the four defenders the Bruins used.
“I think for us, Miguel just demonstrates such an athleticism,” Scoggins said. “He’s so good at running balls down over the top of the back line and winning balls in the air. He has such a fearless mentality as the sweeper. If it was a one-on-one situation, then he’d do everything he could to stand them up.
“That’s the mentality you need to have from your sweeper.”
• Honorable mention: Christian Heritage — Hutch Crawford (Jr., MF); Coahulla Creek — Missael Fraire (So., GK), Sadoth Fraire, (Jr., MF), Pedro Garcia (Jr., F); Dalton — Raymundo Bahena (Sr., GK), Ryan Czyz (Sr., MF), Daniel Palacios (Sr., MF), Caleb Paniagua (Sr., DEF); Morris Innovative — Pedro Ulloa, (So., DEF); Murray County — Manny Bautista (Sr., DEF), Jose Ruiz (Jr., MF); Northwest — Giovanni Aguero (Sr., F), Kevin Centeno (Jr., D), Miguel Deanda (Sr., GK), David Franco (Jr., D), Christian Perez (Sr., MF), Bryan Villa (So., MF); Southeast — Victor Garcia (So., MF), Erik Salaises (Sr., F).