The 112 goals scored by Dalton High School’s boys soccer team in 19 games this season is an impressive feat.
But the Catamounts having their goals allowed total still in the single digits?
That’s the statistic coach Matt Cheaves loves.
Dalton has allowed eight goals this season and hopes to keep it that way in today’s Class 4A state quarterfinals matchup against Jonesboro, which is set for 12:30 p.m. at Harmon Field.
Dalton (19-0) has held the No. 1 ranking in eurosportscoreboard.com’s since March and is also ranked No. 1 in the nation by maxpreps.com. The Cats have three wins apiece against rivals Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield, both of which advanced to the quarterfinals and are also ranked in the Class 4A top 10 poll.
They’ve enjoyed success because they have a knack for finishing chances and scoring multiple goals regardless of the opponent but they also owe plenty to their ability to make sure their opponents struggle to score even once. Dalton averages 5.9 goals per game and has scored at least two in each contest.
“(The defense) doesn’t get as much attention as it should,” Cheaves said after the Cats’ Region 7-4A championship win against the Bruins last month.
Of the 14 different teams to face Dalton this year, only Class 6A’s Habersham Central has scored multiple goals, and that was in a 5-2 Cats win. Dalton beat Northwest 3-1 in each of their meetings, while Southeast scored in its first match with the Cats and was shut out in the second and third games. Only one other team has scored against the Cats, and Tennessee’s Siegel did that in a 10-1 annihilation.
By comparison, Region 4 No. 4 seed Jonesboro (11-5-1) has allowed 23 goals, with multiple goals in six matches and three or more four times, according to results posted at eurosportscoreboard.com. The Cardinals have reached this point by winning twice on the road — 2-1 versus Cairo and 2-0 against Veterans — but allowed four goals earlier this season to Mount Zion-Jonesboro, a Class 5A squad that didn’t reach the state tournament.
Four goals allowed likely won’t be good enough to beat Dalton, since four goals scored has seemed near impossible against the Cats so far.
“They communicate,” Northwest coach Ryan Scoggins said of the Cats’ defense after the region title match. “You can tell they keep that shape in the back and do a great job marking runners.”
“That shape” is a diamond, used as part of Dalton’s 4-4-2 formation of four defenders and midfielders plus two strikers up top. The diamond allows for a stopper — junior Pepe Gardea most of the time and senior Rogelio Mentado when Gardea isn’t on the field — to cut off any attacks or passes through the middle. On the wings, senior Caleb Paniagua and junior Edgar Hernandez cover outside midfielders or strikers who make runs down the side.
In the back of the diamond is Dalton sweeper Salvador Rodriguez. The junior’s duties include seeing an opposing team’s attack develop, directing teammates to mark specific individuals and serving as a last line of defense in case anything breaks down. When most effective, the sweeper isn’t sticking to any individual but able to roam free and anticipate an opponent’s decision.
That crew, plus goalkeeper Raymundo Bahena, have helped Dalton record 12 shutouts this season. The most recent came in the first round, a 10-0 mercy-rule defeat of Stone Mountain. In the second round, Dalton defeated Johnson-Gainesville 2-1 for its only one-goal win this year.
Dalton’s defenders have developed their abilities together not just during high school practices and games but also in area recreation leagues.
“The whole defense plays on a team in Saturday and Sunday leagues,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve done it for three or four years. We have great chemistry together.”
Northwest uses this same shape for its defense, also part of a 4-4-2 scheme. Southeast, however, switches between a triangle with three defenders in a straight line horizontally across the field with a sweeper behind them and a scheme with four defenders in a line. The Raiders often use offsides traps with the line, a riskier approach that requires harmonic timing to work. If not, those same passes over the top or in between defenders are open to teams, with no sweeper coming in to clean up the mess.
“There has to be a lot of cooperation,” Cheaves said. “Salvador and Raymundo have to communicate since they see everything and know how to change how we defend in different situations, like when we’re outnumbered.”
Dalton’s scheme has worked. And the number of goals allowed has connections to the past.
In 2003, the year the Cats were Class 3A co-state champions, the defense allowed a single-digit total for goals in the regular season. Even though Dalton has enjoyed consistent success for some time this is the first time the defense has reached that level of dominance since 2003, Cheaves said. The Cats have reached the playoffs 14 seasons in a row.
“Every other defense we’ve had has given up twice as many goals, probably around 20,” Cheaves said. “That is a stat we quietly watch.”