The high school boys soccer teams at Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield are back in the state tournament after making it last season.
For the Catamounts, the first round’s setting doesn’t change. The same can’t be said for the Bruins and Raiders.
The three teams play first-round matches in the Class 4A state tournament today. The Region 7 champion Cats host Stone Mountain at Harmon Field at 6:30 p.m, the Region 7 runner-up Bruins host Grady in Tunnel Hill at 7:30 and the Raiders, Region 7’s No. 3 seed, travel to face Chamblee at 4:30 p.m. at James R. Hallford Stadium in Clarkston.
Despite not being the Region 7-3A champs in 2012, the Cats started that season’s Class 3A state tournament at Harmon Field. Dalton won 5-3 against Johnson-Gainesville and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing 2-1 at Carrollton.
Now with a No. 1 seed and the opportunity to host at least through the first two rounds, Dalton (17-0) is back home and waiting for Region 6’s No. 4 seed, the Pirates (11-6).
Cats coach Matt Cheaves said he knows Stone Mountain has “good team speed and some good players,” but admitted his knowledge at this stage is secondhand. The Pirates did not make last year’s state tournament.
“Marist and Chamblee are in (Region 6),” Cheaves said. “Stone Mountain beat Marist once, and Marist and Chamblee have both won state championships in the last decade.”
But this season, Dalton is the target.
The Cats have the No. 1 ranking in eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 4A poll. MaxPreps has the Cats ranked No. 1 in the entire state of Georgia, regardless of classification, and second in the country.
“Teams come play us hard,” said Cheaves, whose squad hasn’t allowed more than one goal or been limited to less than two scores in a game all season. “We’ve had the No. 1 ranking, and we’ve played Northwest and Southeast three times. That has the intensity of a playoff game.”
But just beating local rivals isn’t what Dalton wants. The program regularly advances this far — the Cats are in the state tournament for the 14th season in a row — and the focus is on advancing deeper than last year.
“The seniors are very hungry and they definitely want to exceed what we were able to do last year,” Cheaves said. “They know if it slips away from you, then there’s no second chance.”
For the Bruins (13-5), up until now everything they have experienced in the state tournament included getting on a bus and riding to another team’s field.
Now the program gets to enjoy state soccer in Tunnel Hill.
Northwest, ranked fifth in Class 4A by eurosportscoreboard.com, faces Region 6 No. 3 seed Grady in the Bruins’ first home state tournament match in program history. Last season, Northwest played three road games in an underdog run to the Class 4A quarterfinals before losing 3-2 at Starr’s Mill.
“Being able to sit and wait for someone to travel to you is ideal,” Bruins coach Ryan Scoggins said. “I think that hopefully will be an advantage for us.”
Northwest’s first trip to the state tournament came in 2007, but the Bruins didn’t win a state tournament match until last year.
Last season, the Grey Knights (11-2-3) were in Class 3A and lost 2-1 to Carrollton in the first round of the state tournament.
“They have a very talented center midfielder and a couple big, strong forwards up top,” Scoggins said. “They have a good keeper.”
Region 6 used the same sub-region format as Region 7 this year. The top four seeds from each of the two sub-regions qualified for a postseason tournament to decide the region’s four state playoff berths.
So Grady, like Northwest, is accustomed to playing in a win-or-go-home environment.
“I felt like going into our region tournament, it would be a good thing,” Scoggins said. “It was good to have a mindset of winning and advancing.”
The Grey Knights lost in the region tournament semifinals to eventual champion Marist on penalty kicks.
“I think Region 6, historically, is a strong soccer region,” Scoggins said. “I think it has changed a little this year with the addition of the sixth classification ... some schools that were in the region, like Tucker, moved up to Class 5A.”
A lot has happened for Southeast (9-4-1) since last season.
The Raiders had a coaching change, lost three times to rival Dalton and dropped an important sub-region contest to Northwest to put them third in the region.
Now they’ll play on the road in the state tournament for the first time since 2011, traveling to face Region 6 No. 2 seed Chamblee.
The Bulldogs are 6-5-4, but Raiders coach Kevin Kettenring — who filled the void after Jamison Griffin’s departure in the offseason — doesn’t look at those numbers.
“Their record doesn’t really reflect their quality,” said Kettenring, whose team is ranked 10th in Class 4A by eurosportscoreboard.com. “I haven’t seen them play but have some scouting reports from other teams in their region. Coaches have said, ‘Hey, don’t underestimate them.’”
Chamblee was in Class 4A last season and lost 4-0 to Kell in the first round of the state tournament.
“Their competition is always strong,” Kettenring said. “Day in and day out, they’re playing very strong teams. They play consistently out of their region. They pick up anywhere from Class 2A to Class 5A and 6A teams just down the road.”
Southeast won the Region 7-3A title the past two seasons. The Raiders advanced to the 2011 Class 3A semifinals and lost 3-1 to St. Pius X in Atlanta. Southeast reached the quarterfinals last season before losing 1-0 at home, again to St. Pius X.
This season hasn’t been as successful.
“We’ve had some ups and downs. That’s no surprise to anybody,” Kettenring said. “We need to say, ‘Hey, seniors, this is do or die.’
“Yeah, we’d like to be at home, but it’s not going to happen. So let’s take it on the road and do our best.”