All season long, Dalton High School’s football team could say it hadn’t lost a game that would affect its championship dreams.
The Catamounts lost that privilege Friday — and, likewise, lost those dreams.
Alexander kicker Jeremiah Michel’s 27-yard field goal as time expired gave the visiting Cougars a 13-10 win at Harmon Field in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs. The result broke many hearts inside the stadium and crushed all hopes Dalton had of catapulting a Region 7-4A championship into a deep postseason run.
“I’m heartbroken,” Dalton coach Matt Land said. “You spend so many hours and so many late nights and early mornings ... and I know (our players’) hearts hurt.”
Dalton finished the season 8-3. Alexander (7-4) — the No. 4 seed from Region 5 — advances to play Lanier (9-2), which beat Carver-Atlanta (7-4) 26-7 in another first-round game.
Trailing 10-7 in the fourth quarter, Dalton drove from its own 35-yard line to the red zone, but a costly penalty prevented the Catamounts from taking the lead. On first-and-goal from the Alexander 10, Zek Cobb rushed to the left and found his way to the end zone, but the officials flagged Dalton for holding, pushing the ball back to the 20. Four plays later, Dalton settled for a 29-yard field goal from Kiko Rodriguez to tie the game with 3:25 remaining.
“That’s a play that will hurt,” Land said of the holding call, “because it’s a four-point swing. ... It didn’t just hurt our drive; it cost us points.”
The Cats needed a stop from their defense, but the Cougars and running back Mikell Lands-Davis had their eyes on a game-winning drive. Lands-Davis, who finished the game with 176 of his team’s 180 rushing yards on 38 carries, rushed eight times for 43 yards on the final possession. After a 9-yard run from Lands-Davis, Michel came on to seal Dalton’s fate.
Alexander, which entered averaging 32.3 points, was held to its second-lowest scoring output of the season. The Cougars gained 311 yards, while the Catamounts gained 227.
“If we had done enough to win,” senior linebacker Lyle Durham said, “they wouldn’t have scored at all. It wasn’t enough to win.”
Dalton enjoyed its best regular season since 2007, the last time the program won a region championship. Similar to this year, the 2007 Catamounts also saw their season end in the first round and on the last play of the game, 21-19 against Cherokee.
Dalton started the 2013 season with losses to non-region opponents Ringgold and Gilmer — both games without standout junior running back Kelvis Rhodes, who saw limited action Friday due to mononucleosis, Land said — but the Cats proved those losses unimportant with eight straight wins, including five sub-region games and a victory at Gilmer for the Region 7-4A title last week.
Alexander was searching for its first postseason win since the 1996 season. The Cougars’ closest regular-season win was a 33-19 victory against LaGrange.
“To be able to win a close football game and to grind it out is huge,” Alexander coach Matthew Combs said. “They’ve never done something like that. We could’ve folded a lot of times.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Lands-Davis entered the end zone on a 6-yard run with 3:11 to play before halftime. Dalton didn’t waste time responding as tight end Chase Westfall found an open spot in Alexander’s zone, quarterback Payton Veraldi found him and Westfall tied the game with a 46-yard touchdown catch with 1:07 left before halftime.
Michel’s first field goal, a 36-yarder, gave Alexander a 10-7 lead with 10:20 left in the game.
Dalton running back Tyler Noland had nine rushes for 34 yards, while Veraldi had eight carries for 42 yards along with 83 yards passing. Rhodes finished with 3 yards on a pair of carries.