May 17, 2014

State Champs, again

Twice as nice the second time around for Dalton

KENNESAW — Dalton High School’s boys soccer team was in danger of not getting something Saturday from its barrage of first-half chances against Johnson-Gainesville.

The ever-important something came from Justen Macias, a lesser-mentioned name during these state playoffs, and the Catamounts used that lift to bring home another state championship.

Dalton scored the first goal of the Class 4A state championship in the 37th minute, taking a 1-0 lead into halftime, and scored once in the second half to win 2-0 against Johnson at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University, capturing the school’s second straight state title. The win completes a second consecutive undefeated season for the Catamounts, who have gone 45 straight matches without losing.

“We needed to get settled in,” junior center midfielder Eder Mora said. “Once we got settled in, there isn’t anyone in the state who can beat us. No doubt in my mind.”

After missing the first three playoff rounds due to an injury, and playing reduced time in the semifinals, Macias headed home Dalton’s first score just three minutes before halftime. The breakthrough came from Javier Rodriguez’s work down the left sideline and cross to the back post, where Cristian Saldana headed the ball back to Macias waiting in front of the net.

The header bounced by Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido, who to that point had played the role of an impenetrable wall. “It gave us relief and a chance to breathe,” said Macias, a sophomore forward.

“It gave us some open space to attack more, knowing we were one goal ahead. It gave the whole team relief.”

Dalton (22-0-1) entered the match the favorites, having won last year’s state title and boasting an undefeated record. The Catamounts were ranked No. 1 in eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 4A coaches poll, which had Johnson (21-2) ranked second.

Johnson, though, was the only side last season to stay within one goal of Dalton. The Cats beat the Knights by a 2-1 result in the second round of the state playoffs. This year, with Dalton winning Region 7 and Johnson the Region 8 champ, a rematch was destined in the championship.

The Knights earned the match’s first real opportunity when Barut Perez’s header was saved by Dalton goalkeeper Samuel Fraire. It came from point-blank range on a cross to the back post, and Fraire reacted quickly enough to keep the match scoreless.

“The first one is always important,” said Fraire, a sophomore. “If you give up a rebound, it gives them a second chance. You have to stop that. That was my ability to stop it and keep playing and get on top.”

Midfielder Isai Hernandez had a chance go wide in the sixth minute, and Rodriguez’s chance in the 11th rolled across the net and wide left. Hernandez again had a chance in the 15th, but it sailed over the crossbar. Pepe Gardea’s shot to the upper corner in the 20th was saved by Salcido, who also saved Kobe Perez’s 31st-minute attempt.

“It took us about 15 or 20 minutes to get settled into the game,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “Johnson got one real good chance with a cross and a guy got his head on it alone. If they scored that, it would’ve been difficult.

“Luckily, Samuel made a nice stop and we got it cleared. That would’ve changed the whole nature of the game. After about 15 minutes, we kind of figured out what to do. In the second half, we looked much more like ourselves.”

Johnson’s Jeffrey Cabrales had a chance go over the bar in the 24th minute and Fabian Abarca’s chance in the 32nd was blocked by Fraire. That was the last significant opportunity for the Knights.

Just five minutes after, Macias and the Catamounts grabbed a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“Coming in, we talked about the importance of getting an early goal and forcing them to change their style,” Johnson coach Brian Shirley said, “and that didn’t happen.”

Dalton earned its second score in the 48th minute. Outside defender Kiko Rodriguez fought to keep the ball in bounds along the sideline and played back to Mora, who chipped over Johnson’s defense to Churrui Huitanda.

The freshman forward headed the ball past Salcido, and Javier Rodriguez finished on an open net.

“We always do that play,” Huitanda said. “I always sneak in and he always sends it to me (in the air). If it’s on the ground, I can’t control it as well. In the air, I can get a body on it and control it. Once I got it, I was too far and just headed it forward.”

Johnson’s last attempt, a 76th-minute free kick that Fraire easily handled, was the side’s sixth shot of the match. Dalton took 16 shots, and Salcido made six saves to Fraire’s four.

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