DALTON, Ga. — It was an interstate battle Friday night as two of the top boys' high school soccer teams in the country faced off at Harmon Field.
The host Dalton Catamounts — No. 1 in USA Today's preseason poll — rallied to beat McCallie 2-1 on two second-half goals from senior Nathan Rincon. McCallie entered the season ranked fifth nationally after losing on penalty kicks to rival Baylor in the TSSAA Division II-AA state title game last season.
While Dalton (10-0) boasts the reigning Gatorade Georgia boys' soccer player of the year, Wake Forest signee Omar Hernandez, it was Rincon who played the hero against the Blue Tornado (0-2).
"Nathan just hit two beautiful shots, perfect shots," Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. "That was what it took, and we just had to hang on from there. McCallie is such a great program and we're proud of the win."
With the game scoreless at halftime despite the Cats outshooting their visitors 11-2, Dalton was stunned by a goal from Gui Vivaldini just seven minutes into the second half. The sophomore took a free kick from just outside the left corner of the box and lofted it over Dalton goalkeeper Nestor Mendez's outstretched arms.
Being behind for the first time all season seemed to light a fire under the Cats. After controlling the ball on their end of the field for much of the game, Dalton finally cashed in a little more than seven minutes later when Rincon found the ball on his foot off a rebound from a corner kick and drilled it into the back of the net.
With just more than 16 minutes remaining, on what looked like a replay of the first goal, Rincon gave his team the lead. After the strike, the forward was given a red card for taunting. The two teams combined for four yellow cards in addition to Rincon's red in what became a feisty second half.
Playing a man down, Dalton's defense made the lead stand up, keeping the Blue Tornado from mounting any serious scoring opportunities over the final minutes.
Cheaves believes his seniors are extra motivated after last year's second-round exit from the GHSA Class AAAAA state tournament.
"I think this group of seniors feels like they should have won a championship by now," Cheaves said. "They're just a very determined, united group."
McCallie coach Chris Cushenbery hopes to use the close outcome against an elite opponent as a building block for his young team. The Blue Tornado only had two starters from last year's team play Friday night.
"This is a whole new team," Cushenbery said. "These guys just inherited that ranking without doing anything to earn it. I think tonight will be the beginning of something good for us."
After the game was over, he turned to the Dalton fans, clapped toward them and gave them a thumbs-up. Afterward, he explained why.
"I have the utmost respect for Dalton's fans and the culture they have down here," Cushenbery said. "It brings out the best in us, and we feel honored to come down here and play."
Contact Kevin Llewallyn at email@example.com.