DALTON, Ga. — The Dalton boys' soccer team finally got the monkey off its back.
After an early second-round playoff exit last year and a semifinal loss the year before, the undefeated Catamounts lived up to their No. 1 national ranking Tuesday night in a dominant 6-1 victory over visiting Pope in the GHSA Class AAAAAA semifinals. That earned them a spot in this weekend's championship game.
"This is what we've worked for, especially the seniors," said Omar Hernandez, who has signed to play at Wake Forest. "We've always been so close, but yet we've failed. Getting to the championship game is just one step closer to our dreams of the state championship we've always wanted."
Another of Dalton's star seniors, Ivan Mora, left the game in the opening minutes after injuring his knee, and he didn't return. Hernandez — last season's Gatorade Georgia player of the year — picked up the slack, getting the scoring started for the Cats (22-0) with an early goal from the top of the box after a perfect feed from Nathan Rincon.
"We had to adjust to Mora being out when we played Vestavia Hills earlier in the season," said Dalton coach Matt Cheaves, whose Cats were also without senior Harrison Fraire, who received a red card in the quarterfinal round. "So that was a shift we'd done once before; it helped having experienced that.
"We've got a lot of experienced players, and they've got a lot of chemistry playing together, so they were able to adjust and work it out."
Pope (15-4-3) failed to capitalize on an early open-net scoring chance and had a shot go off the crossbar later in the first half, and Dalton took a 1-0 lead into halftime.
The missed scoring chances turned into a flurry of goals to begin the second half. Within a five-minute stretch, the Cats extended their lead to 3-1 after goals by Damian Rodriguez and Rincon with a goal from Pope's Daniel Starysh sandwiched between them.
The Dalton defense turned it up a notch in the second half, allowing only two shots and controlling the game offensively.
A tense, physical first 72 minutes turned into a Catamounts party in the final eight, as goals from Ricardo Bahena, Miguel Perez and Christian Cordova put an exclamation point on yet another lopsided triumph. Dalton has an average margin of victory this season of 4.4 goals.
"This means everything to me," Rincon said. "I've been working for this since my sophomore year. We've been grinding and every year something's gone wrong, and now that we've made it, it's just unbelievable."
Contact Kevin Llewallyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.