Since Matt Cheaves was hired as coach, Dalton High School’s boys soccer program has accumulated 17 state tournament berths, nine quarterfinals appearances, a runner-up finish and one state championship.
As one rival coach described, the Catamounts have become “a model of consistency” for soccer programs across the area.
Dalton hosts Griffin’s Spalding in the Class 4A state semifinals at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Harmon Field, and a win sends the Cats to a state title match for the first time since 2004. Northwest Whitfield hosts Southeast Whitfield at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the other Class 4A semifinal, and the championship is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Kennesaw State University.
Under Cheaves, Dalton has built quite a reputation both locally and across the state. The team is in the state tournament for the 13th straight year, and the Cats have made 16 of 17 and 17 of 19 state tournaments. This season, they are 20-0 and ranked No. 1 by eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 4A poll and maxpreps.com’s national poll.
“All those years of making state,” said Northwest coach Ryan Scoggins, who has been the Bruins’ coach since 2007. “They are a model of consistency.”
When Cheaves became coach in 1995, beating Dalton didn’t mean as much.
“Darlington was the team to beat in Northwest Georgia,” Cheaves said. “They were the boarding school with foreign students. The first time we played them, we beat them.”
Cheaves was named divarsity.com’s Class 4A Boys Coach of the Year this season, the first time he has received the honor, and he was recognized for the achievement by the Dalton school board at its meeting Monday night.
“It’s nice, but it’s a result of what the team has done and is doing. I’m just the coach,” Cheaves said. “To me, the assistant coaches (Blair Chlebisch and Jim Wickes) and players, they’re the ones who got this award.”
Before coming to Dalton — Bill Chappell was athletic director when he was hired — Cheaves was a player/coach for the soccer club at West Georgia College, where he finished his education degree. He was one of the founding players for Clayton State University’s program, where he played center midfield, and he played in high school at DeKalb Christian.
Ron Ward, Dalton’s athletic director since 2010, said Cheaves has had “a direct influence” on the program’s success.
“He’s a very good tactician and strategist,” Ward said. “He’s very good at getting his players to buy into his system. He’s very good at building the program throughout the district, both at the high school level and (below). He’s very quiet and unassuming, but he knows how to build a championship program. The fact that this has gone on year after year is not a coincidence.”
The majority of Dalton’s soccer players are Hispanic. Ward referenced the popularity of the sport among that demographic, and Cheaves said many on his roster played the sport enough to know correct technique before reaching high school.
He believes his job as the coach is to strengthen work ethic and teach the team’s offensive and defensive schemes.
“We already know (how to play),” said senior Ramiro Huitanda, a striker who has a school record of 46 goals this season. “He just teaches us to learn how to do it the right way. It’s the little things like keeping up with your man.”
Dalton was the Class 4A runner-up to Woodward Academy in 2004, a year after tying Heritage-Rockdale 1-1 to share the Class 4A championship. Since 2002, the Cats have made it to at least the second round each season except 2007 and 2009. Dalton won the Region 7-4A title this year for its 12th league title overall.
All of it happened under the leadership of Cheaves, who said Dalton High soccer receives much more attention now than it used to.
“The popularity has increased. We went from a sport than never made any money and didn’t have strong attendance,” he said. “Now the attendance is strong, especially for big games. We have fantastic crowds. The level of play has risen a lot.”