published Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Turnaround has Dalton, Ga., Catamounts envisioning return to top

Region 7B-AAAA

• Team on the rise: It’s been nearly 30 years since Southeast Whitfield tasted the postseason, but second-year coach Sean Gray believes that drought may soon be over. The Raiders return two elite playmakers in Rhett Harper and Blake Foster and an offensive line that averages 270 pounds. Gray, who won several middle school league championships at one of Southeast’s feeder schools, is seeing some of that talent starting to shine. Finding a few defensive linemen will be the key.

• Team on the decline: LaFayette is in major rebuilding mode after winning just one game last year and hiring an almost entirely new coaching staff. The Ramblers also are replacing their leading passer and rusher and are going from the wing-T offense to new coach Chad Fisher’s pass-heavy spread attack. There is good talent on the way.

• Toughest schedule: Ridgeland will be tested early and often, opening against Calhoun before traveling to 7A-AAAA contenders River Ridge and Cedartown. The Panthers also have to play at Dalton in a game that may decide the subregion champion.

• Dream schedule: Southeast’s Gray says his team needs a good start in the pre-region schedule to boost confidence and become a playoff contender, so three consecutive games with teams replacing major offensive production — North Murray, Gordon Central and Gilmer County — are what the doctor ordered.

• Players to watch: Dalton tailback Kelvis Rhodes is the subregion’s biggest offensive threat, capable of ripping off big yards quickly. Ridgeland fullback Noah Cooper takes over as the main rushing weapon in the Panthers’ wing-T, the only back returning from last year’s Class AAAA runners-up. Every team in the subregion is replacing its quarterback, though Southeast Whitfield’s Rhett Harper did get some action there last year. Only a sophomore, Heritage quarterback Dylan Bice is being counted on to lead a resurgence. Northwest Whitfield defensive tackle Isaiah Mack is the reigning region defensive player of the year and has been unblockable in camp, while Ridgeland’s Jermane Conyers is also capable of dominating from the defensive line. Dalton linebacker/safety Eder Mora is perhaps the region’s most versatile player.

• Coaches’ predicted order of finish: Ridgeland, Dalton, Northwest Whitfield, Southeast Whitfield, LaFayette, Heritage.

It was perhaps the worst six quarters of football in Dalton Catamounts history, but for coach Matt Land and a team that appeared to be teetering on the brink of mediocrity, hitting rock bottom was the perfect tonic. It might just get northwest Georgia’s longtime premier program back on top in Region 7B-AAAA.

Dalton stood 2-3 at midseason last year and entered its rivalry game at Northwest Whitfield having been outscored 83-28 in losses to Cass and Ridgeland. But the Catamounts edged the Bruins 24-19 in starting a seven-game winning streak that included a playoff win at Carver of Atlanta.

Land, who had played for Dalton under legendary coach Bill Chappell, would like to take credit for the turnaround, but he said a group of seniors did the heavy lifting and provided an example that he hopes will carry this year’s team.

“Last year’s seniors set a high bar for this year, and they were probably the hardest-working team I’ve coached in 20 years,” Land said. “This year’s team has picked that up and gone even harder. That’s the thing that has us all so excited.”

Added senior linebacker Lyle Durham: “We’re determined to not get outworked by anyone. We learned our lesson last year.”

It doesn’t hurt to have talent, either. Dalton’s run-heavy attack returns junior 1,500-yard rusher Kelvis Rhodes and a new running mate in Tyler Noland, who has, Land said, even more speed than Rhodes. Senior Jake Roberts anchors a potentially outstanding line, and 6-foot-3 tight end Chase Westfall is poised for a breakout season and will be one of new quarterback Payton Veraldi’s top targets.

Dalton’s second tier of defense is loaded, led by linebacker/safety Eder Mora, inside linebackers Jay Rockholt and Lyle Durham and defensive backs Nathan Bryant and Chris Childs. To Land, the fact that rival coaches again are picking his team to contend for a playoff spot is nice. What he wants is to be on their minds following games.

“What I hope they mean by Dalton being back is that the physicality is back,” Land said. “I hope that’s what’s changed. Win or lose, I hope they say they’ve played Dalton. If we get that, we’ve done what we can — give everything we’ve got against every opponent.”

Fortunately for the coach, he doesn’t have to go back very far to find an example. Few gave the team a shot against Carver, especially since Dalton had not won a road playoff game in 20 years.

“That game meant the kids understand that our expectations are beyond our abilities here,” he said. “They saw that we could beat that team. They didn’t know how — they just knew we could. It’s not cockiness; it’s just the way it’s always been here.”

And this year? Land isn’t taking anything for granted in a region that appears overall improved.

“I think we’re enjoying the parity of programs getting more transfers in and having better offseason programs,” he said. “It makes us all better to have good teams in our region. Northwest, Ridgeland back-to-back on our schedule is tough, but we love it. We know we’re going to get every team’s best when we play them. There isn’t a game on our schedule we’re going to treat as a given.”

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296.

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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