Dalton High School Catamounts

May 17, 2014

State showdown

Top teams remember each other

Did Johnson-Gainesville’s boys soccer team give Dalton its toughest game in 2013? Absolutely.

Will the Knights find confidence from that — along with motivation for 2014? Probably.

Will it matter? Well, many teams have been motivated and confident before playing the Catamounts this season, and no one has beaten them yet.

As the defending state champions, Dalton has been the favorites with the bull’s-eye target all season. That hasn’t made much of a difference, and the Catamounts are one match from extinguishing any hopes of a team unseating them from the king’s chair until next year. Dalton and Johnson play today at 2:30 p.m. at Kennesaw State University’s Third Fifth Bank Stadium for the Class 4A state championship.

Dalton (21-0-1) finished its 2013 run to a state championship undefeated through 22 matches. Of those 22 contests, only one was decided by a single goal.

“They were the strongest opponents we had,” Dalton senior Manny Solis said of the Knights.

Johnson, the No. 2 seed from Region 8 for last year’s playoffs, met Dalton in the second round. The Catamounts scored the match’s first two goals, but the Knights replied with a late score and threatened to equalize. Dalton held on for a 2-1 win, and followed with wins of 10-0 (Jonesboro), 7-0 (Spalding) and 5-0 (Southeast Whitfield) to finish the championship run.

That was the last time Johnson (21-1) lost to a Class 4A opponent — the Knights lost 1-0 this season to Class 6A’s Gainesville.

“It may be something they’re telling themselves,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “They may be saying, ‘We gave Dalton their best game last year.’ It’s true. It’s a fact. They can take confidence from that.”

The Knights apparently already are.

“They’ve already been talking online and in social media,” Dalton junior midfielder Kobe Perez said, “about how they will come at us and they know they will take us down.”

Dalton, the Region 7 champion and top-ranked team in Eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 4A coaches poll, is undefeated through its last 44 matches with a 2-2 draw against Dobyns-Bennett of Kingsport, Tenn., the only match not a victory. Johnson, the Region 8 champ and No. 2-ranked team which saw time at the top of the poll earlier this year, could point to a 2-1 result a year ago and say the other 43 matches Dalton played don’t matter.

Then again, Dalton and Johnson could say last year’s match doesn’t matter either. As Dalton junior forward Javier Rodriguez said, “It was last year, and it was different teams.”

Johnson coach Brian Shirley agrees.

“It’s hard to compare last year to this year,” he said. “They graduated guys and we graduated guys. ... I don’t think you can compare last year to this year.”

A recurring theme this postseason has been opponents trying to overload the defense and survive against Dalton. Spalding tried that, and it didn’t work in a 5-0 result. Lanier attempted keeping more than usual behind the ball, and Dalton earned a 3-0 victory.

Don’t expect Johnson to shy away from playing Dalton straight up.

“I think you do what you’re comfortable doing,” Shirley said. “You always play a team straight up. You do what got you to that point and sometimes it can go worse.”

Johnson beat Southeast by a 1-0 result in Tuesday’s semifinals, the third straight victory by a single goal for the Knights. Johnson beat Cairo (quarterfinals) and Carrollton (second round) by 2-1 results after dispatching Marist by a 3-0 margin in the opening round of the tournament.

“They’re fast and skilled and very similar to us, Northwest (Whitfield) and Southeast,” Cheaves said. “They play hard and aren’t afraid to be physical.”

Johnson will be playing its first state championship match, whereas Dalton is set to play its fourth and already has won two championships (in 2003, the Catamounts shared the title with Heritage-Conyers).

The disparity in championship experience won’t matter, Cheaves said.

“I don’t think nerves or anything will play a factor,” he said. “They may have those things; we will, too. Once the whistle blows, it’ll just be soccer.”

Dalton isn’t taking anything for granted. Even with last year’s championship, Dalton found motivation from the few doubters who believed the Catamounts couldn’t repeat in 2014.

They’re one match from making those outside-the-program doubts — and any confidence Johnson has — into inconsequential pieces of a dominant run.

“It’s something we talked about since the beginning of the season,” Solis said. “With the people who doubted us this year, we just use that as energy.”

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