For a decade, Southeast Whitfield High School was Dalton’s best competition when it came to boys soccer.
But Northwest Whitfield officially made it a three-team party with one eyebrow-raising win this year.
While the levels of historical success in the state tournament for Northwest and Southeast are different, the two sides couldn’t be more even this year with their match in Wednesday’s Class 4A state semifinals looming. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Bruin Stadium in Tunnel Hill, and Dalton hosts Griffin’s Spalding in the other semifinal at 6:30 p.m.
The title match is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Kennesaw State University.
Starting with 2002, Southeast has made the state tournament every season, and in 2008 the Raiders were the Class 3A runners-up. Dalton is in the state tournament for the 13th year in a row; the Catamounts shared the 2003 Class 4A title and were runners-up in 2004.
But after Northwest’s run to the Class 4A quarterfinals last season — which coach Ryan Scoggins said was just the second state berth in program history — the Bruins entered this season with high expectations for themselves despite being in the same sub-region as Dalton and Southeast.
Not until March 22 did those expectations become a reality.
The Bruins won 2-0 on the Raiders’ field in a Sub-region 7B-4A match with significant consequences.
First, it gave Northwest the edge in the sub-region standings. Second, it proved the program at least needed to be in the same discussion as its intracounty rival to the south.
“I feel from our standpoint, going and winning that sub-region match this season at Southeast showed us we had a good team,” Scoggins said. “We have tons of respect for Southeast. And in the decade I’ve been here, Dalton has been the benchmark.”
The third consequence of the Bruins’ win was that it bruised Southeast’s reputation.
“That loss, it hurt,” Raiders coach Kevin Kettenring said. “I made it very clear when I said we were embarrassed.”
The Raiders got their revenge less than three weeks later in a 4-1 thrashing of the Bruins in Tunnel Hill that didn’t count in the sub-region standings. It was one of Northwest’s three losses in four matches that started with a 3-1 sub-region loss to Dalton on March 28.
The Bruins have won six of seven matches since then.
“Looking back at that stretch when we did lose three of four, the season could’ve spiraled out of control at that point,” Scoggins said. “ ... We could’ve lost in the region playoffs and not done anything.”
Southeast’s woes came early in the season and resulted in bigger consequences. The Raiders’ 3-1 sub-region loss to the Cats on March 8 came in just their second match of the year. Two weeks later, they lost to the Bruins. Since then, Southeast has lost just two games — both to Dalton — and pulled an impressive tie against Class 6A semifinalist East Coweta, which doesn’t have any other blemishes on its 19-0-1 record.
“I guess I’d make it even,” Kettenring said of his team’s status measured against the Bruins this season. “It’s weird. They beat us at our place and we beat them at their place. Now we’re going back to their place.”
The Raiders’ two sub-region losses put them third in the standings and led to them playing the sub-region title-winning Cats a third time in the region tournament semifinals. Southeast bounced back from its 3-0 loss to Dalton in that game by winning the third-place match, but has been — and will be — on the road for the entire state tournament because of its lower seed.
However, the Raiders have won by multiple goals in each round — 4-1 against Chamblee, 6-1 versus Chestatee and 2-0 over Dutchtown — to set up a rubber match against the Bruins.
The winner very well could play Dalton for the title.
Scoggins said the undefeated Cats, who have won 20 games, wear the crown until someone takes it.
“Anytime someone has stepped up to challenge them, they’ve responded,” he said. “Until someone knocks them off, they’re on top.”
To even have that chance, either Southeast or Northwest must knock off the other.