Rury Alvarez hears the nice talk and feels the pats on the back. He notices how the faces of students at Dalton Academy light up when any of his soccer players walk down a hall.
There's been much talk of making history if the Pumas could win a GHSA Class A public school state championship in their first year of existence.
To be honest - and Alvarez is unabashedly so - the former Dalton State College player doesn't need to be told how special his team is. The past few months have taken care of that for the Dalton Academy coach, and the special part has little to do with soccer.
Sure, after Friday's 2-1 home win over Georgia Military College Prep, which was secured by Christian Cuna's goal with 11 minutes to play, the Pumas will take a 17-2 record into Tuesday night's final at Mercer University in Macon with a shot at going from nothing to champions in a few weeks. Win or lose, though, Alvarez considers that game and the possible title to be a small part of the team's story.
"No matter what happens tonight, we have already won and done things nobody thought possible," Alvarez said prior to Friday's semifinal.
By winning, he means in life, and it's something Alvarez knows a little something about after growing up in a low-income family in Stone Mountain. He quickly fell in love with soccer - "I even picked soccer over girls. They knew soccer was my first love and nobody could compare with it," he said - and played at a high level of competition.
Alvarez earned a full scholarship to Central Florida, but he soon ended up at Georgia Perimeter College, where he eventually had to drop out due to poor grades. Two years later and after surviving on odd jobs, his coach at Georgia Perimeter, Mark Segura, convinced him to try soccer and school again and helped get him in Dalton State.
"It was amazing," Alvarez said. "I came there with a trash bag full of clothes, and I remember saying, 'God, take the wheel.' I didn't have a scholarship. I was living off a $500 credit card and working odd jobs to keep it paid off, but I was eventually able to graduate, and I even met the love of my life there and we now have a baby on the way."
When Alvarez met his players after accepting the job to be the program's first coach, he quickly felt a connection.
"Some of the stuff my players have gone through has been much worse than anything I experienced," he said, pausing to get his emotions under control. "I've had some who came over the border, and fortunately they are doing it the right way and working with immigration to be legal.
"I had one player this week who thought he was getting deported, and he was scared to death. I hear all these stories and it breaks my heart, things like kids' parents hiding in bushes and being afraid they were going to get caught or killed. One of my players just lost his aunt trying to cross the desert last week.
"These guys are warriors. They have gone through hell and back, and they are still here. You don't need to wonder why they play so hard for each other. We have several players who live by themselves and work 40 hours a week. They take a taxi home from practice, change clothes and go to work. They go back home, get some sleep and start it all over the next day."
When asked when he started to believe his team could be special, Alvarez laughed.
"No way," he said. "Never did I see this team reaching this level. We have several kids who were cut at Dalton High, which is an incredible program, and several others who never even got a look. Jokingly, we say this - and it is what it is - we are the rejects, and I include myself in it.
"It's one reason we try to play every single game like it's a championship game, and that started from day one. In life nothing is given to you. You have to work for everything, especially these kids. I tell them to think about all the sacrifices your parents made, and if they are going to pay seven bucks to see you play, you better be ready to die on the field for them."
On the pitch the Pumas are balanced, with 78 goals scored and just 16 against them this season. Adrian Granados leads the team with 19 goals, followed by Fernando Garcia with 11 and Jesus Arellano and Milver Carrillo with eight each.
Alvarez gives much credit to his co-captains, senior Yehia Hussein and sophomore Andy Reynoso, for keeping the team together and always motivating their fellow Pumas. Hussein will play at Dalton State next year, the first of what Alvarez hopes will be many Dalton Academy players to get a college education through soccer.
"Those two are my motivators, and they never stop working," Alvarez said, the emotion again showing in his voice. "If my son has at least 50% of the character and positive attitude, hunger, discipline and respect that those two have, I will be a lucky man. I would die for those two boys.
"People say it all the time, but we are seriously a family. As far as our success is concerned, the secret sauce is love."
In other GHSA boys' soccer semifinals involving area teams Friday:
Dalton 5, River Ridge 1: Zeke Ortiz scored twice to lead the Catamounts (18-1-3) into next Friday's championship match in Macon. Fabian Rodriguez provided the game's first goal 15 minutes in, with Pablo Castillo's score making it 2-0 at halftime. After River Ridge cut the lead to one early in the second half, Ortiz scored his first goal, with Yahir Perez adding insurance before Ortiz finished the game off with his second.
Southeast Whitfield 3, Columbus 1: The Raiders (18-2-3) handed host Columbus its first loss in 20 games with a strong defensive performance and a hat trick from Jonathan Hernandez. He scored the lone goal in the first half and added another 11 minutes into the second before finishing off his second multigoal game in a row with just more than 18 minutes to play. Southeast and rival Northwest Whitfield will meet for the title next Thursday in Macon.
Northwest Whitfield 5, East Hall 1 (OT): The Bruins (15-5-1) erupted in overtime for four goals to set up an all-Whitfield County state final as Nicolas Cuna scored twice in the second period of OT. Eliseo Padilla scored the game's first goal on a penalty kick before East Hall, down a man after being red-carded, tied it with just more than seven minutes to play. Mathew Molina broke the tie in the first OT period with a goal off a corner kick, with Cuna and Huriel Guzman providing insurance in the second period.