This season and last, Dalton High School’s boys soccer team has seen more than one opponent choose to sacrifice offense in hopes of building a defensive wall that stops the Catamounts from scoring, or at least from scoring often.
For 44 straight regular season and postseason matches, it hasn’t kept the Cats from finding the net — nor has it led to that opponent winning. Dalton has been held to one goal just once in that 44-match span, a 1-0 victory over Northwest Whitfield this year where the Bruins were anything but sitting back and trying to survive, and only a 2-2 tie with Dobyns-Bennett (Kingsport, Tenn.) on March 14 has kept that unbeaten streak from being one of perfection.
For the Cats, countering the strategy is centered on persistence and patience. That was the case Tuesday night at Harmon Field in a 5-0 win against Spalding in the Class 4A state semifinals, a victory that advanced the Cats to Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. championship at Kennesaw State University’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
Dalton (21-0-1), the 2013 state champion and the No. 1 team in the eurosportscoreboard.com Class 4A rankings, will take on second-ranked Johnson-Gainesville (21-1), which beat Southeast Whitfield 1-0 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
Dalton coach Matt Cheaves watched early in Tuesday’s match as his Cats took five shots on goal in the first 10 minutes without scoring, knowing they had to shake off the frustration and keep trying.
“In the first 10 minutes, we had lots of good chances,” Cheaves said. “It was clear they’d anchor 10 men behind the ball ... That was how they were going to play us. It was just a matter of trying to score. I thought we needed to step up to their physical play a little bit, and we talked about that at halftime, but the boys did good.
“I thought our first 10 minutes, we played very good soccer, we just didn’t score. ... That made us frustrated when we didn’t score and I think the boys abandoned our plan for a little while, but we still got our goals and were able to get the job done.”
Dalton players interviewed after the match said that whenever they’ve faced a defensive team, scoring the first goal takes much of the pressure off and they find it easier to get the next goal. Against Spalding, they scored in the 19th minute and went up 2-0 14 minutes later. The rest of their goals came in the second half, all with the Jaguars playing with 10 men because of a red card.
Cheaves knew the breakthrough score would make a difference.
“Once you get a one-goal lead, what are they going to do? Are they going to try to keep it close or are they going to come out and play?” he said. “It takes the pressure off of us once we get one.”
• SNAP JUDGMENT: Cheaves had this to say about Johnson when asked about the Knights immediately after Tuesday’s win: “It’s going to take our best game. They’ve got a great forward (sophomore Fabian Abarca), an attacker scoring lots of goals who’s very fast. He can strike from about anywhere on the field at will. They’re similar to us. They’re a fast team. So it’s going to be a great game. We’ve got to be on it.”
• BACK TO SCORING: Dalton’s scoring has been spread around the roster this season, with lots of players getting goals and even substitutes sometimes being sent in to give the Cats fresh legs that can drive toward the net.
The effectiveness of sharing on offense has been on full display during the state playoffs, when they’ve outscored opponents 29-1 despite missing the player who led them in goals for much of the season.
Heading into the state playoffs, the Cats’ leading scorer was sophomore forward Justen Macias, who had 14 goals before suffering a sprained ankle when he was cleated during the Region 7-4A championship match against Southeast on April 22. He was sidelined through the first three rounds of state and saw only limited time as a substitute in the quarterfinals.
“He’d been frustrated, trying to get back in,” Cheaves said.
On Tuesday, Macias not only got in, he got back to scoring, contributing the fourth goal of the game when he used a nice move to win a one-on-one duel with Spalding goalkeeper Lance Rayl.
“I felt glad to be back in and make a difference for the team,” Macias said. “I just like making my family proud, and every goal I score is for my aunt (Guadalupe Palamino), who passed away last year.”
• HARD TO STOP: Knowing what to do and being able to do it for 80 minutes are two different things.
But Spalding coach Scott Henderson believed his Jaguars — who lost 7-0 to Dalton in the 2013 semifinals — had a good plan going into Tuesday’s match. Afterward, he noted what he thought was key to competing against Dalton.
“We had to be strong in the air in the (goalkeeper’s) box,” he said. “We knew from coming up here last year and having seen them play earlier this year, that they’re still so good in the air in the box and they’re just tenacious, they don’t give up on the ball. Even if they don’t win the first header, they’re on the second one.
“You’ve got to be sharp in the box, and I’d say for the most part we were. But when you’re in your box for most of the game, that’s what’s going to happen.”
• READY TO POUNCE: Dalton’s ability to control the ball — and keep it on the opponent’s side of the field — deserves some of the credit for the Cats’ 13 shutouts in 2014. Dalton’s defense, led by senior sweeper Chava Rodriguez, obviously has played a big part when teams have mounted attacks or counterattacks.
And while he hasn’t often been a busy man, sophomore goalkeeper Samuel Fraire, a first-year starter, has been good when called upon. That was the case in Tuesday’s victory, when Spalding had few charges toward the Cats’ goal but Fraire was ready just the same.
In the first half, Spalding had one very clear look at the net and sent a hard, high shot that looked like it would dip just under the crossbar. Fraire leaped straight up and was there to grab it cleanly. In the match’s final minute, the Jaguars had a free kick attempt inside the 18-yard box. Fraire stopped the initial shot, then grabbed the ball on a second attempt from the rebound.
The latest shutout pushed the season scoreboard tally to Dalton 130, Opponents 12. Last season, the Cats outscored their competition 134-8.
• THAT’S DIFFERENT: It’s been easy to spot the parallels between Dalton’s dominance in this postseason and its run to the 2013 Class 4A state title, which ended with a 5-0 win against Southeast at Ra-Lin Field on the University of West Georgia campus in Carrollton.
A venue change is one definite difference for the Cats, who will be spared traveling through or around Atlanta on their way to Saturday’s title match. Dalton is also playing an afternoon match after playing on Friday evening last year.
While all 12 Georgia High School Association state title matches — one boys and one girls match for each of the six classifications — are again being held at two neutral sites, the Cats have known since before the playoffs that they wouldn’t be returning to Carrollton. The GHSA announced on April 21 that a scheduling conflict at West Georgia meant Atlanta’s Emory University would become the second site for this year’s title games, joining Kennesaw State.
Dalton’s match will be the second of the day played at Kennesaw State, following the Class 4A girls match at noon. Also at Kennesaw State on Saturday, the Class 6A girls match is scheduled for 5 p.m. and the Class 6A boys match is set for 7:30 p.m. Fans who pay the $10 admission can watch all four of Saturday’s games.
Some title matches will be played Friday. A schedule for all of the championships is available at ghsa.net/soccer.
• RIVALS MUST WAIT: Dalton has won its past seven matches with intracounty rival Southeast, outscoring the Raiders 25-5 in a span that includes this season, but Southeast probably wouldn’t have minded seeing the Cats one more time in 2014 if it meant playing for the title.
Even without a championship game appearance, though, the Raiders put together another respectable run in the state playoffs.
And in each of its state playoff matches this season, Southeast’s defense competed well against a quality team. While the Raiders gave up a goal for the second time in the state playoffs in Tuesday’s semifinal loss, they had been able to count on scoring at least one goal via a set play in recent matches.
The Raiders beat Columbus 3-1 in the opening round, Lumpkin County 5-0 in the second round and Statesboro 1-0 in the quarterfinals, and five of those nine goals by Southeast came from either a corner kick, free kick or a deep throw-in lobbed in front of the opponent’s net. Those opponents knew Southeast was a major threat to score on set plays — after the games, opposing coaches noted that stopping those plays was a definite part of their game plans — but they were unable to keep the Raiders from breaking through on at least some of those attempts.
That changed Tuesday, when Southeast earned 21 of those set plays but Johnson’s defense managed to clear the ball and end the Raiders’ scoring threat each time.
The Raiders finished the season 14-6-2. They’ve advanced to at least the semifinals five times starting with the 2008 season, when they finished second to Lakeside-DeKalb in Class 3A, losing the title match in a penalty-kick shootout.
— Sports writer Devin Golden contributed to this notebook.