April 19, 2014

Region 7-4A championship

Harmon Field has been good to Dalton boys

If recent history is any indication, this week’s Region 7-4A championship game may not be the last time the boys soccer teams at Dalton and Southeast Whitfield stand opposed to one another this season.

But it could be — and if so, the region title game is a fine theater to showcase arguably the state’s biggest soccer rivalry.

Memories from the last six matches should be enough motivation for the Raiders, but they had the same motivation all those times before and the mighty Catamounts’ dominance never wavered. Now the Region 7-4A trophy stands between the sides, with one to emerge victorious and the other settling for second place and hoping the state tournament yields better results and possibly another chance.

The match begins at 7 p.m. at Harmon Field, where Dalton (16-0-1) has won 33 consecutive matches and three straight over Southeast (11-4-2). The winner enters the state tournament with that all-too-important No. 1 seed, guaranteeing its owner home matches through at  least the semifinals as long as the wins come. The No. 2 seed will host a first-round state playoff game but will likely be a traveling band after that.

“We’re definitely the underdogs,” Southeast coach Kevin Kettenring said. “We’re walking into Harmon Field and I don’t think anyone expects anything more from Southeast than what we’ve done before. That’s from other people. Our task isn’t simple but we must stick with what we know is concrete, survive and take advantage of the few chances we have.”

Other teams from Region 7-4A will be in action as well.

After each lost in Thursday’s region semifinals, Northwest’s two sides must settle for the consolation of third-place matches and the guarantee of state tournament action. Northwest’s boys head to Cedartown for a 5 p.m. start  Monday. Northwest’s girls play at Cass, but Lady Bruins coach Melissa Torbett said a date and time wasn’t finalized as of Saturday afternoon.

The Catamounts’ undefeated streak — starting with a routine, season-opening 5-0 win at home Feb. 12, 2013 against North Murray which eventually claimed the Region 5-3A championship — is one match shy of 40. Dalton coaches and players have repeatedly said they don’t give much thought to the streak. Instead, they say they are focused on championships — believing in the “game-by-game” theory to its fullest — and to win a second straight region title they must beat their biggest soccer rivals for a third time this year.

“It’s the road to success,” said Eder Mora, Dalton’s junior center midfielder. “I think that’s what ultimately has us where we’re at. We take it game by game.”

Both coaches noted “intensity” as a major component whenever the rivals play. Compared to Dalton playing Cass or Southeast against Gilmer, this rivalry is much less fluid. There’s a lot less keep-away possession and a lot less strung together passes toward a threatening opportunity. Dalton coach Cheaves said speed is a big reason — defenders close quicker, amping up pressure and prohibiting relaxed possession — and Mora noted familiarity between opposing players and adrenaline as two major factors.

“I think you see the ball in the air more because teams would rather make the safe play,” Cheaves added. “Knowing you’re playing a faster opponent means you probably don’t want to pass around in the back or near your goal. You also see a lot more of kids staying closer to the man they’re marking. They don’t want to steer too far away because then they might not be able to recover.”

Fittingly, Southeast is the last Georgia school to celebrate a victory on Dalton’s pitch. The Raiders won March 12, 2012 in penalty kicks — a victory that seemed to shift soccer superiority the Raiders’ way, as it swung the Region 7-3A title to Southeast’s trophy case for a second season in a row. Only Chattanooga’s McCallie School has beaten Dalton on Harmon Field since that night.

“We prefer to be at home,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “Southeast’s field is maybe 5 yards longer and the soccer goals are set up closer to the uprights. Their field is set up for a little more width. We like more width, we like a bigger field, yet Harmon Field is our home field. With a choice, we want to be at home.”

Starting with the 2013 season, Dalton has won them all. Last year, the Catamounts won 3-1 on the Raiders’ field, 2-0 at Harmon Field and 3-0 again on their home pitch in the region semifinals. The biggest margin came in the biggest stage, a 5-0 result in the Class 4A state championship.

This season, Dalton won 2-0 on Harmon Field and 6-3 just a week and a half ago at Raider Stadium. In all six matches, Dalton was the better side and led by its spotless defense which has allowed Southeast just four goals, with the last two in the most recent match happening in the final 10 minutes against Dalton’s second string.

More important is the fact that Dalton has scored first in all six matches, scored at least once before halftime in all six and held halftime leads in five.

“They’re phenomenal at set pieces,” Southeast’s junior sweeper, Isael Gutierrez, said of Dalton. “That’s something we’ve struggled to stop in the last few games against them. ... When they get an early goal, it’s a natural habit of people thinking it will go downhill. If it can be 0-0 at halftime, that’s certainly a positive.”

This contrasts to the Dalton-Northwest match earlier this season — a 1-0 win in extra time for the Catamounts — when Dalton’s opponents kept the match scoreless through 89 minutes and came closest to triumph. And the last time Southeast beat Dalton — a penalty kick victory in 2012 at Raider Stadium — regulation time and extra time ended in a scoreless draw.

So guard the fortress, brace for the attack and try to survive.

“You have to strike first,” Kettenring said. “That’s the thing. You have to strike first. So when it happens, there’s composure and a confidence in your play that must be maintained no matter how much up or down you are.

“Any time you can stretch the game out and hold off the result, it works to your advantage.”

Both Northwest sides desire strong showings — and a positive result — in their next matches. Earning that gives a confidence boost heading to the state playoffs, where both could have at best a No. 3 seed with travel plans in the first round.

The boys (6-7-3) face Cedartown, the No. 2 seed from Sub-region 7A.

“I hope we can play really well and have some momentum heading to that round one match,” Bruins coach Ryan Scoggins said. “I know Cedartown is a good team and it will give us a good challenge. It was a tough, emotional loss Thursday. We were right there with a chance to go back to the region championship. We played well, but not well enough to get it done.”

The Lady Bruins (11-3) meet Cass’ Lady Colonels, 7A’s second-place finisher. Northwest won 7-0 against Cass on March 4, but the regular-season crossover game has no bearing on seeding for the playoffs, per the region’s rules which were set two years ago.

“We’ve played and beaten them once this season but all teams improve through the schedule,” Northwest coach Melissa Torbett said. “Since we beat them once, I feel we shouldn’t have to play them again for the third seed. It’ll be good to get a quality game in before the first round of state.”

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