TUNNEL HILL, Ga. - Dalton staked its claim as the top team in Region 7B-AAAA Friday night, overcoming a near knockout blow from Northwest Whitfield before rallying for a 31-28 win.
The Catamounts (4-2, 2-0), who trailed by 14 early, drove 73 yards in the final two minutes and won on Kiko Rodriguez's 25-yard field goal as time expired.
"It's huge because it's the next step in the region championship pursuit," Dalton coach Matt Land said. "All credit goes to Coach [Josh] Robinson and Northwest. They had a great game plan for us, and at the end of the day nobody walked out of here without getting their money's worth."
A rowdy standing-room-only crowd saw the host Bruins (5-1, 1-1) jolt the Catamounts with two quick scores, the first on cat-quick Tevin McDaniel's 68-yard catch-and-run on Northwest's first play from scrimmage. After a quick three-and-out from Dalton, Northwest rode the hard running of Jacob Webb to go 71 yards, taking a 14-0 lead on his 2-yard run late in the opening period.
Dalton got the answer it needed when quarterback Payton Veraldi scampered 45 yards to set up his 2-yard score moments later. The shootout was on, but the Catamounts needed a defensive stop, and they got it courtesy of sophomore cornerback Jordan McKinney.
Northwest was perched at the Dalton 25 when McKinney intercepted Caleb Shiflett's pass in the end zone. Eight plays later -- including Veraldi's 40-yard pass to Peter Sigmon -- the game was tied on Eder Mora's 4-yard run.
"That's the best answer we could give -- to score, get it back and score again," Land said. "Going into halftime that robbed a lot of momentum from them, and I liked the look in our eyes in the locker room."
McKinney could also sense the momentum of the game had changed.
"I had deep thirds [coverage]and I knew my guy was fast," he said of Northwest receiver McDaniel. "When I saw the ball I just jumped as high as I could, and when I came down with it, man, that was the best feeling of my life. I could tell things were starting to change at that point."
The teams exchanged touchdowns in the third quarter on long scoring drives, and Dalton took a 28-21 lead with 8:21 to play on Kelvis Rhodes' 12-yard run. The touchdown came one play after Northwest was penalized for roughing Dalton's Rodriguez on a field goal attempt.
Down seven, though, the Bruins put together a 75-yard drive, most on Webb's (29 rushes, 149 yards) hard running, tying the game on Shiflett's 18-yard pass to Connor Beard with 2:06 left to play. Dalton then put together the winning drive, the key plays being Veraldi's 17-yard pass to Jase Westfall and Rhodes' runs of 12 and 19 yards.
Despite a pair of timeouts to try and ice Rodriguez, the junior calmly put the winning kick through the uprights to set off a wild Catamounts celebration.
"This game was very big," said Rhodes, who had 156 of his 194 yards rushing in the second half. "This is pretty much our region championship here, so we had to come out and give it all we had. When we were down early, we weren't worried. We've been here before and we know what to do. We just had to do it."
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