The mercy rule wasn’t instituted by the Georgia High School Association specifically for Dalton’s boys soccer team, but you could be forgiven for wondering if that was the case.
The Catamounts began their pursuit of a second straight state championship in earnest Saturday afternoon at Harmon Field with an 11-1 victory over Sandy Creek in the first round of the Class 4A tournament, and they looked nothing less than dangerous to anyone else hoping for a shot at their crown.
For the 11th time in an unbeaten streak now at 41 matches — their last defeat was a 2-1 loss at Carrollton in the Class 3A state quarterfinals on May 12, 2012 — the Cats topped an opponent by 10 goals to end the game short of its regulation 80 minutes.
This one was in its 74th minute when Javier Rodriguez scored his third goal of the day and set off the high-fives and handshakes signaling that the Cats (18-0-1) were past their first obstacle in the drive to repeat. Next up for the Region 7-4A champions is Region 8 No. 3 seed Lanier, who beat Region 6 runner-up Grady 2-1 on Saturday in another first-round matchup.
Tuesday’s second-round match will be another contest at Harmon Field for Dalton, which holds home-field advantage for the remainder of the tournament, save the title match, which is played at a neutral site.
While Rodriguez recorded a hat trick and Isai Hernandez added two goals (and as many assists), Dalton’s other six goals on Saturday were all scored by different players: Jose Espino, Pepe Gardea, Edgar Hernandez, Churrui Huitanda, Gibby Perez and Kiko Rodriguez. Huitanda also had two assists, as did Manny Solis, while Eder Mora and Kobe Perez each set up one goal.
For the Cats, their unselfishness when it comes to scoring is big a reason as any why Sandy Creek (10-7) or any other team is in for a challenge when Dalton is on the other side of the field.
“It’s good that we pass the ball and other people can score so we don’t have to rely on one person,” Javier Rodriguez said. “We can share the ball and still score. We really don’t care who scores — whoever scores, it’s good. We just want to win.”
That approach is not a new development for the Cats. Even last season, when senior striker Ramiro Huitanda set the program’s single-season record with 47 goals, there were plenty of offensive opportunities to go around.
Of course, that’s possible when you outscore opponents 134-8 over the course of a 22-game season. With up to four more matches remaining for Dalton this year, 2014’s cumulative scoreboard already reads Cats 112, Opponents 12.
While the unselfishness certainly doesn’t hurt, with numbers like that it’s fairly obvious the main reason the Cats win and win so dominantly: they’re really, really good.
“What’s good about that team is that they’re solid all around,” said Sandy Creek coach Hunter Seegers, whose Patriots — the No. 4 seed from Region 5 — had returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
“They don’t have any glaring weaknesses. They play a strong offense, a strong defense, they play very well together with a lot of coordination, they anticipate how you’ll react — and they’re all very individually skilled players.”
Dalton coach Matt Cheaves, who has plenty of postseason experience after having guided the Cats to 18 state tournament appearances, considered the Patriots anything but a first-round domino. The Cats make winning look easy, but that doesn’t mean it is.
“They’re a pretty good team. They have a lot of speed and a lot of skilled players, so I feel good about (the win),” Cheaves said. “That was a good team we played today. They were fast and athletic and had soccer skill.”
And the Patriots deserve plenty of credit for that 1 on the scoreboard. They’re one of only 10 different schools to register a goal versus the Cats during their unbeaten streak, and Saturday’s score was a show of determination.
With Sandy Creek trailing 8-0 in the 62nd minute, Christopher Avery doggedly dribbled nearly three-quarters the length of the field through Dalton’s defense before setting up teammate Jonathan Timm’s score.
Of course, the Cats answered back almost immediately, with Isai Hernandez scoring his first goal less than a minute later.
That sequence was just one example of Dalton’s continued dominance. Their 18-4 edge on shots on goal and 11-0 advantage on corner kicks Saturday was another.
The Cats are good. That, too, is nothing new. But some in this group are new to filling bigger roles.
That Dalton would be just as talented or play as well as a team this season wasn’t a given. Huitanda’s time was up and the same was true for others who led the charge to last year’s title.
Yes, some starters and stars returned. Mora, a junior midfielder, was a big difference-maker again Saturday despite not having as many stats to show for it as others. But one thing that all of the Cats are facing for the first time is the pressure of being a defending state champion— and on the throne, there’s no place to hide from those who want to take you down.
“This team has had to grow to reach this point,” Cheaves said. “It wasn’t clear, you know, at the beginning who was going to score goals, who was going to play what position. It took us a few games. It was probably midseason before we started scoring lots of goals. I feel like this team has had to grow more than last year’s team did.
“Last year’s team, that starting lineup was there, it was set. Unless somebody was hurt, it didn’t change. This year it’s changed and people have been in different spots.”
That was even the case Saturday, when Dalton secured its latest rout despite the absence of Justen Macias, who has paced this year’s scoring but didn’t play because he’s still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in the previous match.
The Cats are good. Good enough to win another title. Good enough to be in the same conversation as last year’s other-planet lineup. Good enough to be confident every time they take the field.
But it’s worth pointing out that in last year’s tournament run, their toughest match came in the second round, a 2-1 victory over Johnson-Gainesville. The Cats led 2-0 before the Knights notched a 58th-minute goal, but in the world of sports, a one-goal lead in a state tournament match feels as shaky as the San Andreas Fault.
Making winning look easy is anything but that, and the Cats know why they’ve been successful — and how they can keep that up.
“We’ve got to keep building on our chemistry and eliminate our errors, because that’s what championship teams do,” Mora said. “They keep getting better even very late in the season … they try to be perfect.”
One last thing. It’s not the biggest deal, especially not for a team that has made victory a habit, but the Cats were originally scheduled to face Sandy Creek this past Tuesday. The threat of inclement weather kept them from playing that day, and a shortage of officials around the state kept all of the state tournament matches slated for Tuesday from being held until Saturday. That meant Dalton hadn’t played another team since beating Southeast Whitfield in the region championship on April 22.
The unexpected change in routine might have bugged another team, and while Cheaves said going that long without a game wasn’t his or the Cats’ preference, it didn’t show when it finally was time to play.
As for the time of day they chose to play, the noon kickoff was partially the result of the need for some team members to take part in the Dalton High School’s chorus’ spring show.
See? As well as these Cats know soccer, they’re a multi-faceted bunch.
The streak will eventually end. Dalton will have a bad day, or an opponent will have a good day, or someone will simply be better than these very good Cats. But they didn’t show any signs of that bad day in the first round.
At least for right now, Big Red has no intention of singing the blues.
Marty Kirkland is sports editor of The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.