By Marty Kirkland
Dalton High School’s boys soccer team is serious about winning a championship this year, but the Catamounts have made laughers of most of their Class 4A state tournament matches.
Their semifinal against Spalding on Wednesday night was no different, but the Cats know playing their biggest rival — for the fourth time this season — with the title on the line will be no joke.
Dalton beat Spalding 7-0 at Harmon Field for its 14th shutout this season and its third in the state tournament to set up a title match with intracounty rival Southeast Whitfield.
The Raiders — who have been outscored 8-1 in three losses to Dalton this year but are one of only five teams to even find the net against the Cats in 2013 — picked up a 2-0 overtime victory at Northwest Whitfield in the night’s other semifinal.
The championship is set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday at either Kennesaw State University or the University of West Georgia in Carrollton — the Georgia High School Association is expected to make that decision today — but wherever the match is played, the Cats (21-0) have shown they’re determined to be there.
Dalton has been ranked No. 1 by eurosportscoreboard.com in Class 4A for most of the season, but in less than 48 hours it’ll have the chance to prove it on the field.
“They’ve followed the game plan and they play together,” said Cats coach Matt Cheaves, whose team has outscored opponents 129-8 this season. “We have a lot of talent, and a lot of teams have talent. But these guys have chemistry and they play together and everybody’s playing out of the same playbook. They follow the same ideas, and that makes a big difference.”
Dalton picked up 10-0 mercy-rule victories in the opening and quarterfinal rounds of the state tournament against Stone Mountain and Jonesboro, respectively, with the Cats’ only real challenge in the tourney coming during a 2-1 win against Johnson-Gainesville in the second round. But to Cheaves’ liking, the Cats have not shown any indication of being satisfied short of a title, and even when they’ve been at less than their most intense they’ve snapped out of it quickly.
The Cats led 4-0 at halftime against Spalding (18-2) but started the second half quietly before they reignited their scoring touch in the 59th minute when Daniel Palacios scored his second goal of the night, sending a shot in from 20 yards out when he saw a wing leave a gap between him and the net. Alan Lopez scored from 10 yards further out eight minutes later; two minutes after that, Ramiro Huitanda’s second goal — set up by Ryan Czyz — was a grounder that stayed to Spalding keeper Peter Strnad’s left.
“I didn’t think we really started out that great in the second half ... we were kind of comfortable, and we don’t want to play that way ever,” Cheaves said. “There’s no point in playing that way.”
It’s rarely been a problem. The Cats’ persistence of their ultimate goal has been reflected in the fashion they’ve scored goals, with second shots and cleanups in front of the net accounting for their offensive prowess as much as quickness and good passing. Each of their first three goals against Spalding — by Alan Pantaleon in the ninth minute, Palacios in the 16th minute and Kobe Perez in the 24th minute — came from the pursuit of another attempt when the first one came up empty. Pantaleon and Palacios scored when the first shot off a throw-in didn’t work.
“We’ve worked throughout the season on those kind of set pieces,” Palacios said. “I turned around and luckily I got the ball. Coaches told me to just clean up anything that’s in the area.”
It made for a busy night for Strnad, a senior who made several good saves but admitted after the match he was facing a challenge unlike most he’d seen. The Cats took 24 shots, with Strnad saving a third of them.
He called Dalton’s offensive pressure “relentless.”
“These are one-of-a-kind teams,” he said. “I’ve never played anything like them. ... They’ve definitely got some shots.”
Pantaleon’s goal came as he capitalized on Strnad’s aggressiveness on a long ball that pulled Strnad out of the box to make a defensive play. Pantaleon had enough of a gap to set up a shot and didn’t waste time, and that helped the Cats settle in for one of the scoring barrages that has characterized their games this season.
“If we miss, we keep on trying,” Pantaleon said. “That’s the way we do everything, we just keep on trying until we get it.”
For the Jaguars, the play was a game-changer in the wrong way.
“We knew we needed to take care of the ball, and we didn’t do that and that was the difference in the game,” Spalding coach Scott Henderson said. “Giving up a sloppy goal early on completely changed everything that we were looking to do.”
Even the first goal by Huitanda, whose single-season program record is now at 50, was an example of the Cats’ persistence when it comes to scoring. He was closer to midfield than the net when he started dribbling, shaking off defenders and making Strnad wobble before he sent the ball to the keeper’s right and into the net with a little more than nine minutes to play in the opening half.
“They want to score. These boys like to score,” Cheaves said. “And they’re not really selfish. When they see they have somebody else open, they’ll make the pass, but if there’s nothing there they’ll try to create something. I have a style I want them to play, but again, I don’t want them to be robots and I communicate that. If they think they can do something, go do it — make it happen. ... I trust them, because they make some really beautiful plays.”
Dalton had advanced to the quarterfinals four times since finishing second in 2004 but was in the semifinals for the first time since that year. This year’s team will now try to add a second state title to the program’s collection. The Cats shared the 2003 Class 4A championship with Heritage-Rockdale.
With Southeast (13-4-1) having survived a rivalry battle with Northwest (16-6), it’s the Raiders who have the last chance at putting a stain on Dalton’s clean mark this year. When the Cats’ match was over, the Raiders and Bruins were still playing, but for the Dalton players polled it didn’t seem to matter much who would be next.
“Despite all the past games that we’ve played against them, we have to give it our all in this game,” Palacios said. “Anything can happen.”