May 22, 2014

Cheaves: A calm champion putting team before achievement

All season, Dalton High School’s boys soccer team was chasing a second consecutive Class 4A state championship.

Within that run, some of the Catamounts’ secondary numbers and streaks received publicity.

But one accomplishment was seemingly ignored until the final match’s conclusion.

Dalton coach Matt Cheaves earned his 300th win last week in the 5-0 semifinals victory against Spalding, and then earned his 301st win coaching the Catamounts in Saturday’s 2-0 state-championship triumph over Johnson-Gainesville. At Thursday’s postseason banquet at the high school, held each season but holding a little bit more of a special aura after state championships, players recalled being oblivious to their coach’s feat until the bus ride home.

“He said, ‘I didn’t want to tell you guys until after the semifinals because I wanted you to focus on winning the state championship,’” junior midfielder Eder Mora remembered. “It was a good moment for the whole team to give him his 300th win.”

How does 300 wins rank among the most ever in high school soccer?

As of last summer, Terry Michler of Christian Brothers College (St. Louis, Mo.) had the most wins of any high school boys soccer coach with 884, according to the website studentsports.com. Cheaves’ 301 wins is the most of any active coach in Whitfield or Murray counties.

Dalton’s much-mentioned undefeated streak is now at 45 matches, encompassing two seasons and starting with the first match of the 2013 campaign. After each Dalton victory this season, the streak grew. After a 2-2 draw against Dobyns-Bennett, of Kingsport, Tenn., the streak shifted from a winning one to an undefeated one, still going higher and higher after each few days.

Then it was a second straight Region 7 championship last month, and the No. 1 ranking Dalton held in Eurosportscoreboard.com’s coaches poll for a large part of the season.

None of that held much significant to Cheaves. The priority always was another state title.

That’s why Cheaves’ milestone wasn’t highlighted until the Catamounts finished the job. With a calm personality, he is extremely focused on the future.

“That wasn’t the time to celebrate,” Cheaves said of the 300th win. “We won the semifinals, but we were going to the championship. I didn’t want to shift the focus and attention to something like that. The main thing is the team, no individual.”

Cheaves only has been a head coach at Dalton, and started there 20 years ago. That’s an average of about 15 victories per season. His teams have earned 18 trips to the state playoffs, 13 region championships, 10 quarterfinals appearances, three state titles and one runner-up. The first state title came in 2003, a shared title with Heritage-Rockdale, and the runner-up finish to Woodward Academy came one year later.

A decade after that, and the back-to-back run finally happened.

“We’ve had so much community support and help from the student body,” Cheaves said. “It has been incredible.”

Before coming to Dalton — legendary football coach Bill Chappell was athletic director when Cheaves 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.

Dalton’s roster is full of Hispanic players who became skilled in the sport before starting high school. Cheaves said his job is to keep those individual skills up to par and bring each player together as a combined unit.

“He gets us to know one another well, which we already do,” junior midfielder Kobe Perez said, “but gets us to play as a team. Sure, you can have good players on the team, but if you don’t play together, it doesn’t work.”

Still, with the season in the rearview mirror, Cheaves hasn’t had a chance to reflect on what 300 wins means. Then again, he’s already at 301, and he’s already finalizing next season’s region schedule as Dalton goes for a Class 5A title when the school moves up in classification. The Catamounts will be looking for a three-peat.

“There have been a lot of things to do,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to sit back.”

Always looking to the next match. That’s Matt Cheaves.

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