DALTON, Ga. - Many things make defending the Dalton High School boys' soccer team difficult, but as Spalding High found out during their GHSA Class AAAA semifinal match Tuesday, the Catamounts' overall depth might just be the hardest to deal with.
Five Dalton players scored in a 5-0 win, the third time in three playoff matches with at least that many, as the Catamounts (21-0-1) dominated in nearly ever phase of the game. The top-ranked defending state champions will get a chance to repeat their title Saturday at 2:30 against Johnson of Gainesville at Kennesaw State University.
Johnson edged Southeast Whitfield 1-0 in Tuesday's other semifinal.
"It's nice not to have to rely on any one or two people to score, and I'm sure it makes it difficult for teams trying to defend us," Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. "We have a lot of guys, including several subs, who are scoring for us. That's their role and it keeps them in the game. A lot of guys who don't start tend to hang their heads, but not these guys. They come in and they seem to score quickly."
The Spartans (16-3-1) came in with a familiar game plan: Load the defensive box and try to keep the game close. The strategy worked for the most part early, despite several good Dalton scoring chances. However, once the seal was broken on the net, courtesy of an Edgar Hernandez header off an Eder Mora throw-in at the 19:08 mark, the Catamounts could smell blood.
"In the first 10 minutes we had lots of good chances," Cheaves said. "It was clear they were anchoring 10 guys behind the ball and try and keep us from scoring. We played very good soccer in those 10 minutes and had three excellent chances. The guys kind of abandoned the game plan a little after that, but we were still able to get our goals."
Dalton made it 2-0 14 minutes later when Jose Espinio knocked in a crossing pass from Justen Macias, but that proved to be all the first-half scoring despite a 10-1 shot advantage and with nearly all the play in the Spalding end. A red-card foul 10 minutes into the second half made things even more difficult for the visitors, who were forced to play a man down the rest of the way.
The score, however, was still 2-0 22 minutes into the second half when the floodgates opened. Manny Solis headed in a corner kick from Charrui Huitanda, and four minutes later Macias made it 4-0 after another strong assist from Mora. Josh Satterfield capped the scoring with eight minutes remaining.
"We tried to tuck back in and bring in our central players some to defend to make up for being a man down, but they had already played so hard that it didn't help much," Spalding coach Scott Henderson said. "I couldn't have asked any more of them. We knew from coming here last year that they were really strong in the air and in the box, and they are still so good at winning nearly every ball."
• Johnson 1, Southeast Whitfield 0: At Gainesville, the Knights' Barut Perez scored on a free kick in the 27th minute to help second-ranked Johnson (21-1) edge the Raiders and earn their first-ever state-final appearance.
Southeast coach Kevin Kettenring wasn't pleased with his team's performance in the match, which marks the third time in the past four seasons that the Raiders advanced to at least the state final four.
"We had chances, but we weren't able to capitalize on them," Kettenring said. "I don't know if it was the heat or the travel, but we didn't have the effort tonight. Hats off to Johnson for getting the win, but we did not have the energy I expected tonight."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.