By Devin Golden
CARROLLTON — With three minutes to play in Friday’s Georgia High School Association Class 4A boys soccer championship, both teams already knew the verdict.
Dalton’s fans were chanting “Undefeated!” Southeast Whitfield’s fans could only root their Raiders to a disappointing conclusion.
The Catamounts took the lead less than three minutes into a 5-0 victory against intracounty rival Southeast at the University of West Georgia’s Ra-Lin Field.
The fourth meeting between the teams — the Catamounts (22-0) won the first three by a combined 8-1 score — was the most decisive. Dalton entered ranked No. 1 in eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 4A poll and won the Region 7-4A title earlier this season.
It’s the second state championship for the program — the first came in 2003 when the Cats shared the Class 3A title with Heritage-Rockdale after a 1-1 overtime draw.
“The important thing to me is not the trophy, not the rings,” said Cats coach Matt Cheaves, who has been Dalton’s leader for 19 years. “I had my (previous state championship) ring stolen at Christmas time. Those things will not last. But what these boys keep in their heart and pass on, those will last forever.”
Alex Rosillo, a striker for the seventh-ranked Raiders (13-5-1), had said before the game that the key was scoring first — or, at minimum, keeping Dalton from scoring for a longer amount of time than the Cats were used to.
In the third minute, sweeper Salvador Rodriguez put a free kick into the top corner from 40 yards away. It was just his second goal of the season, and he celebrated like it.
Rodriguez slid to his knees in front of the Dalton fans, who celebrated three more first-half goals.
“I was just trying to put it in there for a header,” Rodriguez said. “When it went in, I couldn’t believe it.”
Southeast goalkeeper Abel Mendiola said he took a step forward and then couldn’t recover enough and after the game took full blame for the miscue. Southeast coach Kevin Kettenring said it was a gift, the one thing an opponent couldn’t afford versus a talented Dalton lineup.
“We went through every scenario yesterday as best as we could to get all of those things (addressed),” Kettenring said. “I didn’t see it. I don’t know if Abel was pressured, but I don’t think he was. I think it was just a long-distance ball right in that corner and … we just didn’t cover it, just did not cover it. You can’t give them anything, you just can’t — and we did.”
Seven minutes later, Ryan Czyz’s corner kick found Eder Mora for a 2-0 lead.
Daniel Palacios converted Dalton’s ninth shot of the game in the 20th minute when he collected a rebound and converted low past Mendiola. The fourth goal came in the 26th minute — part of Remy Miranda’s short stint subbing in goal — when Czyz’s corner kick found Alan Pantaleon.
Southeast’s best first-half opportunities didn’t provide much of a scare. A couple deep throw-ins and a free kick in the fifth minute didn’t make goalkeeper Raymundo Bahena nervous. He only made one save but often came 10 yards off the goal line to grab deep throw-ins or crosses. He played a major part in Dalton’s 15th shutout of the season.
“That’s what Southeast is known for,” Bahena said of the Raiders’ ability to generate scoring chances from set plays. “I knew I had to go for them. If not, then it’d be dangerous for us and an opportunity for Southeast.”
In the second half, the Raiders looked like a different team. They had six shots on goal and held the Cats to just one score. Ramiro Huitanda made the most of a defensive lapse in the 56th minute, with his shot from less than 10 yards deflecting off Mendiola and then ricocheting back off Huitanda for the 51st goal of his senior season.
That’s when reality set in. In the final minutes, Dalton players only asked for their fans to get louder.
“With four or five minutes left, we knew they wouldn’t come back and beat us or tie us,” Huitanda said. “This crowd has been the best all season.”
Dalton routinely dominated teams through the regular season, and the postseason was no different. Except for a 2-1 victory versus Johnson-Gainesville in the second round, all of the Cats’ state tournament wins were by at least five goals. Dalton outscored teams 34-1 in the state tournament and 134-8 over the course of the season.
Southeast had to play all of its state tournament matches on the road but still reached the championship for the second time in program history. The Raiders lost the 2008 Class 3A title match to Lakeside-DeKalb.
“You hurt for them, because this is it for them,” Kettenring said. “… There are all those different hurdles that you either stop and look and discuss or you jump over them and move on, and we were able to do a lot of that.”