By Marty Kirkland
In a streak of 44 matches without a loss, Dalton High School’s boys soccer team has demonstrated speed and skill that sometimes makes it look like the Catamounts have more players on the field than their opponents.
When they actually did have more players on the field than Spalding in Tuesday night’s Class 4A state semifinal at Harmon Field, it seemed inevitable that the Cats would have their chance at a second straight title.
With Dalton already holding a two-goal lead, a Spalding red card in the 50th minute left the Jaguars down a player and unable to substitute for the remainder of the match. The Cats then found the net three more times for a 5-0 win that put them in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. championship match at Kennesaw State University’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
They’ll take on Johnson-Gainesville, which beat Southeast Whitfield 1-0 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
“I’m very proud of it,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “That’s what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to go to the state championship, we want to be state champions again. We’ve reached a goal. But we’re not done. We’ve still got more to do.”
The win was the 13th shutout of the season for Dalton (21-0-1), which is the No. 1 team in the eurosportscoreboard.com Class 4A rankings and has outscored opponents 29-1 through the first four rounds of the state playoffs.
But early in Tuesday’s match, third-ranked Spalding (16-3-1) seemed determined to at least limit Dalton offensively, keeping its defense packed behind the ball to make the path to the goal harder for the Cats. Dalton had five shots on goal in the first 10 minutes with nothing to show on the scoreboard, and the frustration eventually caused the Cats to play less like themselves for a while, Cheaves said.
When a throw-in from standout junior midfielder Eder Mora, who was 15 yards from the end line, led to Edgar Hernandez’s header into the net in the 20th minute, the pressure shifted squarely back to Spalding — for good.
“We felt good, because that’s what we needed,” Hernandez said. “We needed to score so we could keep going and going, because once we score, we’re going to keep on scoring.”
Dalton took a 2-0 lead into halftime thanks to Jose Espino’s 33rd-minute score, and three different players scored in the second half as the Cats continued to share the offensive load, a strategy that has served them well one year after senior striker Ramiro Huitanda set the single-season program record with 47 goals.
With one goal each, Manny Solis (62nd minute), Justen Macias (66th minute) and Josh Satterfield (72nd minute) all did their part to put victory in their own hands and out of reach for Spalding. Solis’ score was set up by Churrui Huitanda’s corner kick and Solis assisted on Satterfield’s goal.
But the Jaguars hurt themselves, too. Dakota Rice was already carrying a yellow card from early in the second half when his tackle of Dalton sophomore midfielder Isai Hernandez drew a red card that sent Rice to the locker room. The Jaguars weren’t strangers to Dalton after losing 7-0 to them in last year’s semifinals, and Spalding coach Billy Henderson said he felt like his team had executed its strategy of limiting Dalton’s opportunities near the goal for most of this meeting.
The card, he said, was obviously not part of the game plan.
“That changes your shape completely,” Henderson said. “You’re already trailing and to try to break out and get numbers, that’s where it opened the game up and it killed us, trying to get players to cover a player and then break out to be in the attack. We’ve got players already trying to do the job of two to make up for some of their guys, and now all of a sudden they’ve got to do the work of three.”
Dalton outshot Spalding 16-3 for the game, with Jaguars keeper Lance Rayl making six saves and the Cats’ Samuel Fraire finishing with three. The fact that the Cats were able to keep pushing the ball deep into Spalding territory despite the Jaguars’ defensive focus might have shown even more in the 12 corner kicks (to none for Spalding) earned by Dalton.
“We were on them the whole time,” Mora said. “So we were just confident in what we could do, and we knew that it eventually would go in. If they want to stay on their side of the field, that’s better for us. They’re not going to get on our side.”
The Cats have three days to get ready for the match that will ultimately decide how successful they view this season. They cruised to the title via a 5-0 win against Southeast a year ago, but Johnson has given Dalton its closest match during the 2013 or 2014 state playoffs, a 2-0 win for the Cats in last year’s second round of state.
By the end of Tuesday’s match, the Cats already knew the second-ranked Knights (21-1) would be the last thing standing between them and repeating as state champions. Mora showed no signs of anxiousness about the task.
“We’ll be ready to bring it home,” he said. “We just have to practice hard and do our thing.”