November 20, 2012

Dalton High football notebook: Defensive turnaround key

For Dalton High, defense has been the difference in two very different halves to one football season.

In the year’s second half, the Catamounts haven’t always looked pretty on Friday nights, but they have always been winning. The first half of the schedule is something that, for the most part, Dalton won’t dwell on as it prepares to play Sandy Creek in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs.

The Cats (8-3) topped Carver-Atlanta 17-14 last week to earn a matchup with the Fighting Patriots (11-0), who are ranked No. 1 in Class 4A both by The Associated Press and Georgia High School Football Daily/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Friday’s game at The Battlefield in Tyrone is set for 7:30 p.m.

In a 2-3 start to the season, Dalton’s two wins came from holding off Class 3A’s Ringgold 21-10 in the opener and rallying to beat Gilmer 28-21 in overtime in a Region 7-4A crossover matchup. The Cats fell to Calhoun, the 2011 2A state champion and the No. 1-ranked team in that class this year, and to eventual Region 7-4A champion Ridgeland. But Dalton suffered its worst loss of the year to Cass, which had never beaten the Cats before and finished the year with a 5-5 record and missed the playoffs.

The common thread through those first five games? In each one, the defense allowed the opposition to score at least three touchdowns.

Since the 48-21 loss to Ridgeland in the fifth game of the year, Dalton has won six straight.

The common thread through those wins? No opponent has scored more than three touchdowns.

In their recent winning streak, the Cats have recorded two shutouts and allowed their opponents to score an average of 10.7 points per game, and both coach Matt Land and his players point to the 35-7 loss to Cass as the turning point for the defense.

“I’m not erasing that game from my memory, but I would like to,” senior free safety Nathan Bryant said. “I looked around that night, and I was not satisfied with anyone in the locker room, especially myself. I don’t know what it was, but we found it, and it sparked us.”

Senior defensive tackle Ethan Marlow agreed.

“That was the game that was the eye opener for all of us,” Marlow said. “We knew we had to band together and say this can’t happen again. Ever since that game, we have been playing a lot looser and have just been sticking people. It’s been a lot more fun.”

Land said the improvement came from the players themselves, not any changes he and his staff implemented.

“Go back to the beginning of the year, and we had eight starters to replace,” Land said. “These are 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old boys and they don’t all ‘get’ it at the same time. Some are very mature, and they got it the day they got out of the womb. Then you have some who just don’t get it until they get banged around a little bit and realize, ‘I better become the hammer or I am going to get stuck as the nail.’

“I think at the midpoint of the season, I think there was a maturation process that happened. I think some of our leaders began to rise and lead. We aren’t coaching any different. We aren’t focused on anything different. Somewhere along the line, they started believing and started to gel.”

HILL DONE: Dalton senior tailback Marvin Hill, who has been primarily been used as a backup to sophomore Kelvis Rhodes, saw his season come to an end with a meniscus tear in his right knee.

Land said Hill, who had 164 yards rushing and one touchdown in spot duty — he played a crucial role in finishing off the Cats’ victory against rival Northwest Whitfield — also has a bone spur lodged under his knee cap and will have to have surgery to repair the injury, which happened during Friday’s victory at Carver.

“They said it was so freaky that he probably already had the damage on some level and had just been playing with it,” Land said. “Suddenly, it was just a perfect situation for the tear.”

PLAYOFF TERRITORY: Dalton’s win against Carver was the first postseason victory for the program since coach Ronnie McClurg’s 2005 team beat Habersham Central 17-14 and North Forsyth 20-17 in the first two rounds of the Class 4A state playoffs before falling 28-14 to Griffin. The Cats had suffered four losses in the first round of the state playoffs since then and missed the postseason altogether in 2008 and 2010.

Friday’s victory at Lakewood Stadium was also the first true road playoff win for Dalton in two decades. The previous postseason victory at an opponent’s stadium was in 1992, when Bill Chappell’s team beat Clarkston 20-0 in the 12th game of the year.

However, Dalton did beat Paulding County 22-3 in the Class 4A semifinals in 2001 in the Georgia Dome, its only postseason victory away from Harmon Field during the gap.

FAMILY TRADITION: According to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association’s website (, Sandy Creek has been in existence for 21 years. The Fighting Patriots won the Class 3A state title in 2009, then moved up to Class 4A the next season and won a second straight state championship.

But it took an influx of Walkers to make Sandy Creek relevant outside of Fayette County south of Atlanta. Rodney Walker, who is in his 39th season coaching with 300 career victories, went to Sandy Creek in 1999 after his Peach County team lost in the state title game to Dougherty. Before Walker, the Patriots had never played beyond the regular season, but Sandy Creek was 48-19 with five playoff appearances in six years under his guidance.

In 2005, he left to take the head position at Mary Persons and his son, Chip Walker, took over the program. In his eighth season, the younger Walker is 84-16 with those two state titles, which is one more than his father. The elder Walker won his title in 1984 as the coach at West Rome.

NFL TIES: Sandy Creek currently has three alumnus who are on active rosters in the NFL, according to Sandy Creek’s football website. Cedric Golston is a defensive tackle for the Washington Redskins and played college football at Georgia, former Georgia Tech standout Calvin Johnson is a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and Andrew Gardner, a 2009 Georgia Tech graduate, is an offensive tackle for the Houston Texans.

HEAD TO HEAD: This will be the first meeting between Dalton and Sandy Creek, but they faced a common opponent last year.

Dalton lost in the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs, falling 48-27 to Gainesville on the road. Sandy Creek lost 35-21 to the Red Elephants in Gainesville two weeks later in the quarterfinals.

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