Their star tailback got hurt. They didn’t play their best defensive game of the year. They committed far too many penalties.
But the Dalton Catamounts got the win. And the trophy.
Dalton High School won its first football region championship since 2007, building a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter and relying on its defense and backup tailback Tyler Noland the rest of the way. The Catamounts (8-2) won 24-10 over Gilmer (8-2) at Huff-Mosley Memorial Stadium in the Region 7-4A championship game.
“I just thank God that I got this opportunity four years ago,” Dalton coach Matt Land said. “I coach the best kids in the world in the best program. The amount of work that this group of seniors put in for today. ... For 241 straight days, we have broken the huddle with ‘Region champs!’ As a parent, to see these kids work hard and achieve what they have worked so hard for, I am the luckiest man on the planet.”
It was the second time this season Dalton beat Gilmer, with the Cats winning 31-0 at Harmon Field on Sept. 20. Both Dalton and Gilmer advance to the state playoffs next Friday, and both teams will be at home.
Junior running back Kelvis Rhodes scored on a 20-yard run on Dalton’s opening possession, but on the third play of the second possession, Rhodes twisted his left ankle and returned sparingly for just three more carries.
That was when sophomore running back Tyler Noland stepped in. Noland had been the Cats’ starting running back in the first two games of the season while Rhodes was out with a shoulder injury. He didn’t seem to have any trouble picking up the slack, rushing 22 times for 156 yards and a touchdown.
“I was thinking that I would have to carry the load,” Noland said. “I give the offensive line a lot of credit. Kelvis told me I had to hang in there and hang in there. I got a little banged up myself, but I just went back out there and did my best.”
Playing with a short field for most of the first half, Dalton scored on its first three possessions with Noland running in from the 5 to make it 14-3 and Peter Sigmon taking a shot pass from Payton Veraldi and turning it into a 32-yard touchdown.
The 21-3 lead with 9:27 remaining in the second quarter was enough to disrupt Gilmer’s wing-T offense, which is ground oriented. However, after falling behind, the Bobcats went to the air more behind quarterback Chris James in Gilmer’s dual quarterback attack.
“That got us out of our game plan and we didn’t play very well defensively in the first quarter,” Gilmer coach Wesley Tankersley said. “We settled down there at the end of the second quarter. But in the second half, their defense is pretty darn good and we just dug too deep of a hole to get out of.”
It was exactly what Land hoped would happen.
“We had talked all week about the fact that we needed to get in front and get an early lead to get them out of their comfort zone,” Land said. “We knew we had to get them out of their game. From that point on, I don’t know if we got comfortable or nervous or what, but we fell into some bad habits.”
The bad habits included an interception deep in Gilmer territory on a drive which could have given Dalton a 28-3 lead. Instead, Gilmer returned the pick by Austin Cole back to the 45 and the Bobcats put together their only touchdown drive. Gilmer converted two fourth downs with “running” quarterback Thaddeus Bowers catching a 10-yard scoring pass from James.
The second half lacked rhythm for both teams because of penalties and sloppy play. Dalton was flagged 13 times for 125 yards on the night, while Gilmer had a fumble, failed to convert on a fake punt and failed to convert on a fourth-and-2 from midfield early in the fourth.
Dalton capped the scoring with a 29-yard field goal from Kiko Rodriguez, and safety Nathan Bryant intercepted James in the end zone with 2:46 remaining.
The Cats ended the game with 330 yards of rushing offense while holding Gilmer to 106.