May 10, 2014

Sweeping it clean

Rodriguez an important part of Dalton's soccer success

Salvador “Chava” Rodriguez is around 5 feet, 2 inches — maybe 5-3.

Yet, the Dalton boys soccer team’s sweeper is as effective a fortress as Helm’s Deep from “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Playing the all-too-important role of sweeper — the final defender in a four-defender formation — Rodriguez has been an extremely valuable part of Dalton’s success for the past three seasons. And he’s one of the biggest reasons the Catamounts — ranked No. 1 in Eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 4A coaches poll — are undefeated through 43 consecutive matches and one win from a second-straight appearance in the Class 4A state championship game.

Dalton, the Region 7 champ and 42-0-1 over the last two seasons, won 10-0 in Friday’s quarterfinals against Perry and will host Spalding in Tuesday’s semifinals at Harmon Field. Region rivals Southeast Whitfield will travel to Gainesville to take on Johnson in the other semifinal on Tuesday. The winners of Tuesday’s games will meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Kennesaw State University’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium.

Rule No. 1 of being a sweeper: Don’t let anything past you. After that position, it’s just the goalkeeper, so the sweeper must be an impenetrable wall of defense. He doesn’t need to be the most-skilled player, but he needs to be one of the smartest and have the quickest reactions and best reads of where an opposing side will attack.

“He’s the only one responsible for not marking a man,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said, “and if something gets through, he cleans it up.”

Rule No. 2 is communicate. The sweeper sees everything the other defenders can’t. That means Rodriguez is the eyes in the back of outside defenders Edgar Hernandez’s and Kiko Rodgriguez’s heads, along with directing stopper Pepe Gardea.

“Last year, I said we all already have chemistry (even before the season started),” Rodriguez said. “We just lost one player (Paniagua) and replaced him with Kiko and still have chemistry. We have more chemistry now, because we play together in the rec leagues, too.”

Follow those two rules, and the sweeper does his job. Safe to say Rodriguez, a three-year starter, has done the job better than most.

Dalton finished the 2012 season 16-4, the runner-up to Southeast Whitfield in Region 7-3A and losing to Carrollton in the state quarterfinals. That 2-1 loss on May 11, 2012 was the last defeat for the program, which has allowed just 20 goals in the past 43 matches. As many goals as Dalton has scored — 134 last year and 125 already this season — Rodriguez is only focused on the zero beneath the opponent’s name on the scoreboard. In the first-round victory against Sandy Creek, the Catamounts won 11-1 by mercy rule. That’s not the type of day Rodriguez wants.

“I don’t like when we get scored on,” he said.

Rodriguez — along with Gardea, Hernandez, senior outside back Caleb Paniagua and senior goalkeeper Raymundo Bahena — helped the Catamounts set a record for goals allowed last year with just eight. This year, the team has allowed 12 with Kiko Rodriguez entering the starting lineup and Samuel Fraire taking over goalkeeper duties after Paniagua’s and Bahena’s graduation.

Both years included Region 7 championships and this year is two wins from replicating last year’s state title. Rodriguez is the defensive captain — junior midfielder Eder Mora is the other captain — and has matured from last year to this season as a more-vocal presence throughout the entire team.

“Last year, we had a really strong group of leaders,” Cheaves said. “This year, we needed more and he’s done a great job of becoming one. ... To me, that was a key thing. Eder is the other one. In the senior group, to have someone take a leadership role, that’s huge. This group, they’re not so much the ones who like to step forward. They’re more the ones who like to follow. And they had the seniors last year to follow. And we knew Eder would be that way, but we needed someone from the seniors, too.”

Just like he wasn’t always a leader, Rodriguez hasn’t always played in the sweeper position. In fact, he hasn’t always been a soccer player. Until age 10, he played baseball.

After switching to soccer, he mostly played outside midfield and defender. That changed when he joined Dalton’s soccer program as a freshman and became the JV team’s sweeper.

“He has soccer smarts and his skill is incredible,” Cheaves said. “I thought it was a natural fit for him. With his speed — he’s small — but he’s fast enough and aggressive.”

Even though he’s been steadily manning one position for three years, he can play so many others.

Cheaves tells the story of a 6-0 win last season against Gilmer. Dalton hadn’t broken away until Cheaves moved Rodriguez to striker.

“We had a few goals, but I felt we should’ve had more,” he said. “They weren’t attacking us, so we put him at forward. He scored three goals in 11 minutes. He can play anywhere on the field except goalkeeper.”

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