DALTON, Ga. - When opposing soccer teams put together a game plan to go against the skill of Dalton High School, it usually involves playing physical and having keeping more focus on the defensive end of the field.
The Spalding Jaguars had that same plan Wednesday in the GHSA Class AAAA semifinal at Harmon Field, but it lasted all of eight minutes. Daniel Palacios scored the first of his two highlight-reel goals and the onslaught was on as the Catamounts rolled into Friday's championship with a 7-0 win.
Dalton (21-0) will face Region 7 rival Southeast Whitfield, an overtime winner over Northwest Whitfield on Wednesday, at 7:30 Friday at either Kennesaw State University or West Georgia University. Spalding ends its season 18-2.
"Once we got the early goal I knew they were going to have to come out and attack us a bit, and that's not what they wanted to do," said Dalton coach Matt Cheaves, whose top-ranked team will make its first title game appearance since 2004. "They make the chances happen and they cash them in. The second half it seemed we put it in cruise control, and I don't like that. But earlier they made things happen and got off to another quick start."
The aggressive Cats took it to the Jags early and often, playing almost the entire first half in the offensive end. It paid off quickly when Spalding keeper Peter Strnad tried to clear a loose ball and Palacios intercepted it and easily beat a retreating Strnad for a 1-0 lead.
"I saw the opportunity and just kicked it in," said Palacios, a big part of Dalton's 14-1 first-half shooting advantage. "That was a big relief to get that first one and we did a great job of keeping the momentum."
Seven minutes later an offensive barrage led to a rebound that Andres Barragan gathered in and knocked past Strnad. Kobe Perez made it 3-0 eight minutes later on a similar goal when Strnad made the initial save off a throw-in but could not clear it. Leading scorer Ramiro Huitanda got in the act with nine minutes remaining in the half when he broke free down the left side, made one move and blasted a shot past Strnad.
Though the Catamounts weren't as crisp offensively in the second half, the defense in front of keeper Raymundo Bahena remained stout. Palacios put any comeback hopes to bed at the 59-minute mark when he made a clean steal near the left sideline, took one dribble and drilled a laser into the upper-right corner.
Alan Lopez and Salvador Rodriguez added late goals as Cheeves was able to get several reserves in. The veteran coach was pleased his team won most of the physical battles.
"I knew this team was going to be scrappy and play it all the way out," Cheeves said. "Teams have tried to push us around in the past, but that's not going to happen with this group. There was a bunch of physicality tonight, but no dirty play. It was a well-played game."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.