Whitfield County roots as one with three shots at Georgia soccer titles

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Dalton's Yahir Paez (26) shoots during a home match against Baylor on April 6. The Catamounts will be seeking their sixth state title in boys' soccer when they face Johns Creek in the GHSA Class AAAAAA final Friday night at McEeachern High School in Powder Springs, Ga.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Dalton's Yahir Paez (26) shoots during a home match against Baylor on April 6. The Catamounts will be seeking their sixth state title in boys' soccer when they face Johns Creek in the GHSA Class AAAAAA final Friday night at McEeachern High School in Powder Springs, Ga.

On the pitch, they are as fierce as rivals can be. Think Alabama-Auburn in college football or Duke-North Carolina in men's college basketball.

When the GHSA finals begin Thursday night, though, every soccer fan in Whitfield County will share their support for the three area boys' teams looking to bring home state titles.

For Dalton High School, which has four state titles in the past seven tournaments, as well as the current No. 1 national ranking at maxpreps.com, postseason success has come to be expected. The Catamounts (19-0-2) will be seeking the program's sixth title overall when they face Johns Creek (16-2-1) in Friday night's Class AAAAAA final at McEachern High School in the Atlanta area, but they have company this year with longtime rival Southeast Whitfield and rising power Coahulla Creek also still in the championship hunt.

Both of those programs have had state-level success before: Southeast made a habit of deep postseason runs before finally winning the 2017 Class AAAA title, and the Colts were Class AAA runners-up in 2019, less than a decade after the school in the north end of the county opened. But at 8 p.m. Thursday, when the Raiders face East Hall in the AAAA final at Duluth High School and Coahulla Creek takes on Westminster in the AAA final at Mercer University in Macon, the opportunity to make Whitfield County the soccer capital of Georgia is indeed extra incentive.

"Once we got to this point, everybody is rooting for everybody else and it's exciting for all of us," Coahulla Creek coach Aurelio Jacobo said. "Us winning together and practicing together and growing together is huge. It's taken us longer to get here, but now that things are leveling out in a way, everyone is seeing that we can compete against each other and it's brought the entire area together."

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Southeast Whitfield's Nathaniel Villanueva celebrates after scoring a goal during the team's 7-0 home win against Chestatee in the second round of the GHSAA Class AAAA state playoffs on April 29 in Dalton, Ga. The Raiders have since added wins against Benedictine and Jefferson, and they will face East Hall on Thursday night at Duluth High School with a state title on the line.

Southeast coach Hector Holguin got a taste of that spirit this week. After the Raiders (17-0-3) used goals from Lupe Beltran, Diego Castillo, Julian Hernandez and Daniel Orrelana to defeat Jefferson 4-1 in the semifinals, Holguin was driving home when he pulled up next to a car full of Dalton players.

"It was nice because they had just won, and when they saw me they were all congratulating me because they had heard we won also," said Holguin, whose Raiders twice tied the Catamounts this season. "Our whole community is excited. Whether you're a Raider, a Catamount or a Colt, it's just an awesome time.

"I'm so happy for Coahulla and Dalton. (Dalton coach) Matt Cheaves and Aurelio Jacobo are good friends of mine. When we play them, we want to beat them very badly, but we're all rooting for each other this week. Win or lose, they respect one another."

That respect starts on the recreational fields and carries over to the highly competitive club teams. Playing time is earned, and rivalries - and friendships - are formed that last a lifetime. By the time the kids in Whitfield County get to the prep level, which also includes 2018 Class AAAA champion Northwest Whitfield - Holguin's alma mater - there are no secrets when they play each other and the games are intense.

"It's a big deal in northwest Georgia," said Jacobo, who played at Murray County and is in his third season as Coahulla Creek's head coach. "Everybody is competitive, but it's definitely friendly competition with a lot of respect. Players in this area push each other and grow together."

The Colts (16-2-2) have perhaps the toughest task this week against Westminster (14-2-4), an Atlanta private school that has won nine championships since 2001, including the past three in AAA. The Wildcats defeated Coahulla Creek 4-0 in the 2019 title match, a game that taught the Colts something about postseason soccer.

"We see how aggressive they will be on the ball, and we can anticipate that now," Jacobo said. "Two years ago we had no idea what to expect. Francisco Medina, our leading scorer, was taken out of the third round, so it hurt us without him. This time we have four guys who have been consistent all year, so we can score from anywhere."

In Tuesday's 6-1 win over Greater Atlanta Christian, that firepower was on display as Manny Arredondo and Jamie Mendiola each scored a pair of goals, with Saul Barenasa and Renaldo Medina also scoring. Mendiola leads the team with 36 goals this season, followed by Barenasa with 32, with Arredondo and Medina having 25 each.

Southeast will rely more on its swarming defense to try to get past East Hall (15-3-1). The Raiders have posted as many shutouts, 11, as they have allowed goals this season, and four of those came against Dalton in the pair of ties. As Holguin pointed out, his team is focused on reaching the ultimate goal.

"Here's an example of how this team thinks," Holguin said. "We won 2-0 against Benedictine in the third round, but we didn't play great. The next day the seniors were leading us in running hills. You would have thought it was the first day of practice the way they were getting after it.

"That's what has led to the success we've had. On the practice field, the competition is just so tough with one another. They don't let up, and they plan to win."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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