By Chris Whitfield
The Dalton senior football players on this year’s team turned a corner in returning winning playoff football to the program, but the brightest shining stars of the 2012 season were sophomores.
And after restoring some of the luster to the Dalton name after the Catamounts were forced to forfeit games in 2011 and suffered the first losing season in the record books in more than half a century, this year’s seniors look for the returning players to find new heights after winning the first playoff game since 2005 and finishing with an 8-4 record.
“We came together the way a team is supposed to in the second half of the season, but I can’t wait to see what next year’s team can do,” senior defensive end/fullback Robert Hardaway said Friday night after the Cats lost 35-13 in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs at Sandy Creek.
Sophomore rover Eder Mora and fellow 10th-grader Kelvis Rhodes were the “name” players for this year’s version of the Catamounts. Rhodes, like Tre Beck before him, made his presence known at the tailback position, gaining more than 1,500 yards on the year and leading the team in scoring. On the defensive side of the ball, Hardaway was the heart of the unit, but Mora was the fist.
Mora, who also punts and split time at fullback with Hardaway in the second half of the year, was seemingly in on every tackle in the loss to the Fighting Patriots. He returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown to give Dalton a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. He picked off another pass in the second half and also caused a fumble.
“If that boy makes one more tackle, I have to say something about the way he is playing,” the Sandy Creek public address announcer said to the rest of the press box in the fourth quarter.
Mora made the next tackle, and everyone in the stadium was encouraged to give him a round of applause. With his play, Mora made everyone notice.
“He is a heck of a football player, and he is only a 10th-grader? Wow,” Sandy Creek coach Chip Walker said. “He was definitely the spark of their defense, and I thought those guys played extremely hard. They came in here and took our best shot and kept playing hard all night. That goes to their staff and how they work those guys.”
Hardaway, who has played side-by-side with Mora for the past two seasons has been impressed.
“He is the definition of an athlete,” Hardaway said. “He can do whatever you ask him to do, and he will do it as hard as he can. He is just a sophomore and he is just an unbelievable athlete. I am going to miss playing with him.”
Just as the duo split time on the offensive side of the ball, they seemed to go hand-in-hand on the defensive side of the ball as well. And even though Sandy Creek scored 35 points on the Cats’ defense, coach Matt Land was sorry to see one leave and happy to have the other one back.
“In your big games, your better players have to step up and make big plays,” Land said. “In this situation, Robert and Eder have made those plays all year long. Robert has just given us four years of unbelievable sacrifice and service. Eder has played for two years, and you are just excited to see him play for two more.”
It is Hardaway and his fellow classmates whom Mora said he drew inspiration from as the year went on.
“I just really feel like they were great leaders,” he said. “I looked at them as older brothers and they have been a model for me to follow.”
Another reason to be excited was the year Rhodes had. Despite battling a nagging ankle injury for much of the year and having opposing defenses key on him and especially limit his second-half carries, Rhodes still was the go-to option for the Dalton offense. He was also the main focus of the Sandy Creek defense.
Rhodes finished the night with 16 carries for 0 yards as the Patriots dominated the line of scrimmage and had more than enough speed to keep Rhodes from getting to the corner. Rhodes’ longest run of the game was an 8-yard gain on his third carry of the night, but after that he only had two carries for positive yardage the rest of the night.
“It is one of those things that our program is built on good defense,” Walker said as his team improved to 12-0 and will host No. 3 Burke County in the state quarterfinals. “If we are going to continue to win, the defense will have to carry us. Dalton scored that second touchdown late, and I think that is just the second or third offensive touchdown we have given up in the last six or seven ball games.”
Land knew going on the road and getting a win over the top-ranked team in the state would be a challenge, but he and his team welcomed it.
“My hat is off to coach Walker,” Land said. “I said coming into this week that we felt like we could win, but if it came down tonight and the better team beat us, then I would take my hat off to them. They were definitely the better team tonight.”